Queen Pheromone

What is it about queen bees that are so attractive to worker bees?  When we took the photo shown above, we had just prepared six queens from the day’s harvest for introduction into our own colonies.  Note how the workers can’t seem to show enough love to the queens.  These attendants were so fixated on the queens that they traveled inside our truck like this without us even needing to put a lid on the box!  The workers simply had no desire to fly away nor to stop attending to the queens.

When we prepare shipments of bulk boxes, it is never a problem getting attendant bees motivated to stay and care for the queens.  A quick shake of a frame of bees into the box produces more than enough workers willing to stay with, and attend to the queens the whole time they are in transit.

The queen pheromone is so powerful that bees will even drop out of the sky to investigate a box of queens!  When we deliver queens to UPS, we have been cautioned by the office staff not to arrive prior to 4:30pm, as any earlier causes curious bees to fly into their customer service center, potentially frightening customers.

Inside the hive is no different.  Worker bees can immediately identify the presence of a queen, as well as the lack of a queen.  The method of this attraction is through a pheromone known as the “queen pheromone”.  The purpose of the queen pheromone is to signal to a hive that a queen is present and that she is recognizable.

A pheromone is a chemical that is secreted by a member of a species that can be used to control the behavior of another member of the same species.  Imagine how much love we could receive if we humans had a pheromone as powerful as the “queen pheromone”!

Queen pheromone is secreted near the head of the queen in an area above her jaw known as the mandibular.  Her secretions make her identifiable to all bees inside the hive; workers, drones, and possibly other queens.  The workers spread this pheromone throughout the hive using their antennae.  If this pheromone is absent, the colony will soon recognize its absence and will know that they are queenless.  They will then begin to construct emergency queen cells to raise a new queen.

Not only can a hive measure the presence, or absence, of queen pheromone, but it also able to measure the level of it.  A dip in the level of queen pheromone indicates that the queen could be beginning to fail.  This will often cause a colony to begin raising replacement queens for supercedure of the current queen.

It is well known that overcrowded bees are more likely to swarm than bees with ample space.  However, some beekeepers believe that the overcrowding of bees itself inhibits the transfer of queen pheromone throughout the colony, therefore causing the colony to raise replacement queen cells in anticipation of a swarming event.

The Queen Bee Mating Yard

The apiary pictured above is where a queen bee’s home resides, amidst hundreds of other similarly looking mating nucs; sort of like a monotonous development of tract homes that all look the same. Each queen lives inside her own mating nuc, where she begins her journey into the world with her emergence from a queen cell.  A week or so later she takes flight from her mating nuc into the sky.  If all goes well, after another week or so, she will begin to lay eggs and have the opportunity to prove herself as a quality mated queen bee for sale.

One of the challenges for a queen producer is properly setting up the layout of the mating nucs within the apiary.  One would think that rows of mating nucs, neatly organized in perfect crisp lines, would be the most efficient use of space, and easiest for the beekeeper to manage.  Unfortunately, while this straightforward organization might make perfect sense for the beekeeper, it is not ideal for queen bee rearing.

The problem with long, straight rows is that a queen bee returning from a mating flight needs to easily be able to return to the correct mating nuc when she arrives home from her flight.  If all the nucs are lined up in neat rows, and there are otherwise no distinguishing landmarks to distinguish one part of a row from another, a returning queen can get confused.  Which is the right box?  A mated queen bee that returns to the wrong nuc box could possibly find disaster waiting, with another queen bee already established and ready to fight.  This confusion of queens and foraging bees returning to the wrong home is called “drifting.”  To the conscientious queen breeder, drifting should be avoided.

At Wildflower Meadows, to prevent drifting, we vary the patterns of the mating nucs in a queen bee mating yard (as do most all queen producers).  Sometimes we arrange the mating nucs in curving rows, other times in circles, and other times in various geometric patterns.  This makes it easier for returning queens to quickly get a “read” on the yard from the air, and hopefully find their way home, to the right home, each and every time.

 

Above is a satellite photo of one of our mating yards.  If you were a queen returning home, could you find your way back?

The First Mated Queen Bee of The Season

Behold, the first mated queen bee of the season!

Around the middle of March, Wildflower Meadows begins harvesting its first mated queen bees of the season.  These early-season queens hatched and took flight in February to mate with the some of the first drones of the season.  A lucky customer will surely be excited to receive this beauty.

Let’s keep in mind, however, that in agriculture, being the first does not always equate to being the best.  For example, the first peach of the year is typically not quite as sweet and juicy as mid-season peaches.  For that matter, the last peach on the tree is generally not that good either.  The best peaches are usually those that are harvested right in the heart of the season, when there are a million other peaches to choose from.  Similarly, the best queen honeybees are usually mated at the peak of the season, when the queen raising conditions, the weather conditions, the drone saturation, and the mating are all optimal, and everything is coming up “peachy”.

That said, this early season queen has some unique characteristics that set her apart from the others.  First, she’s the first!  You can’t deny that.  There aren’t that many of her kind right now, and everybody wants her.

Secondly – and much more importantly – she’s holding onto some unique genetics.  The drones that mated with her are by definition the earliest drones of the season.  They come from colonies that are the first to buildup, and are showing unusual strength in the early spring season.  These drones also originate from winter survivor stock, unlike some of the season’s later drones, which will originate from same season stock.  In other words, the colonies that produced these drones are real go-getters!

It is most likely that the offspring of this queen, because she now carries the genetics of these early season drones, will exhibit the prized quality of early season vigor and rapid buildup at the start of seasons to come.