Queen Bee Posts

Swarming vs. Supercedure Queen Cells

An unmanaged colony of honeybees in nature has only two ways of reproducing itself for the next generation:  Either it divides itself by swarming, or it stays put as a single colony and supercedes its queen.  In both cases, the original queen is replaced.  In the case of swarming, the original queen leaves with the swarm, leaving a set of queen cells that are called “swarm cells.”  In the case of when a colony supercedes, the original queen either dies of natural causes or is killed, and is then replaced by the colony.  In this case, the colony will raise a set of “supercedure cells.”  Both types of queen cells are raised by the colony to hatch out the next generation queen.

An experienced and astute beekeeper will notice that swarm cells are usually formed at the bottom of frames, whereas supercedure cells are formed in the middle of frames.  Swarm cells are nearly always of higher quality than supercedure cells.  This is because swarm cells, by definition, are constructed during the peak swarming season, which is the ideal time of year for raising well-fed and high-quality queen cells.  During the swarming season, pollen is typically readily available, and the colony is able to take advantage of prime conditions for raising the highest-quality queen cells.

Supercedure cells, on the other hand, may be constructed throughout the year.  The timing of supercedure cells is not dictated by the season, but rather by the condition of the existing queen.  This means that supercedure cells could be formed when conditions are downright poor for raising queens, such as during drought.  Sometimes supercedure cells are constructed on an emergency basis (for example, when a queen is accidentally killed by a beekeeper or otherwise dies unexpectedly for other reasons).  In its stress and urgency to raise a new queen, a colony may or may not select ideally aged larvae for raising the next generation queen, also possibly resulting in the production of a sub-par queen.

Thus, based on all of the above, it would seem that swarm cells are superior to supercedure cells.  But wait . . . not so fast!

While it is true that swarm cells, and therefore the subsequent queens, are often of high quality, however, from the point of view of a beekeeper this is all backwards.  From the point of view of the beekeeper, swarming is always an undesirable behavior.  No beekeeper would ever be enthusiastic about a queen that was produced as the result of a swarming episode.  The queen from a swarm cell, by definition, is a queen from a genetic line that has already proven itself eager to swarm.  And no beekeeper wants swarming genetics in their stock.

Actually, for a beekeeper who is managing a domestic colony of bees, neither of the naturally produced queen replacement options that the beehives themselves offer are particularly attractive.  The swarm cell contains the wrong kind of genetics, and the supercedure cell can be of lower quality.  This perhaps explains why commercial queen production is a necessary and valuable service to beekeepers around the world.

The commercial queen breeder takes the best of both worlds and produces a superior queen.  The selection of the stock is taken from colonies that have little or no interest in swarming, thus minimizing the genetic swarming tendency in future generations.  The queen producer then raises the carefully selected queen cells in conditions that are designed to mimic the swarming season, thus ensuring the highest quality of the production of the queen herself.  Even though a commercial queen is raised in a simulated swarm setting, the genetics of the queen are first carefully selected from a breeding regimen that specifically selects for many desirable characteristics, of which swarming is not one of them!

From A Bee’s Perspective

We human beings love to anthropomorphize our beloved honeybees.  A Google image search for “speedy” bee, “busy” bee, “happy” bee, and even “queen” bee – more often than not comes up with a human-like cartoon caricature rather than an actual insect.

While we like to think of honeybees as human-like, it can be rather difficult to wrap our heads around how very different honeybees actually are from us human beings.  We appear to be alike in the way that we cohabitate our planet – mostly harmoniously and working well together in nature.  However, our actual manner of living is in fact vastly different.  Bees live in an insect realm of dark, vertical, and mysterious spaces.  So, let’s be honest, we are not even remotely close to being the same species!  Therefore, the notion that we have a similar life experience, along with a similar perspective of the world, is a vastly huge stretch.

It is easy to forget these differences, though.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, we do it all the time, especially when it comes time to ship our queen bees.  We lovingly prepare our weekly shipments, and wish our bees well as they travel into the very human world of trucks, highways and airports.  Then, off they go, to their remote destinations to meet their new human caretakers and bee colonies.  It’s as if we are sending a friend or family member off for a business trip or vacation:

  • Food? Check.
  • Water? Check.
  • Travel companions? Check.
  • Destination notified? Check.
  • Flight schedule? Check.
  • Check-In Time?  Check.
  • Okay, let’s go before we miss our flight!

Then, after all the preparations, Wildflower Meadows’ queens embark on a completely human-like journey.

 

But wait, the passengers are not human.  They are insects!

This distinction becomes particularly obvious if a queen shipment incurs a travel delay.  Just like when we humans travel across the country, unexpected delays and hold-ups do happen, whether we like it or not.  UPS Next Day Air shipments of queen bees, while almost always reliable, can, on the rare occasion be delayed.  At times, shipments can be disrupted by delayed flights or missed connections, or simply by the weather.  Sometimes, the volume is especially heavy in the overall UPS network, thus slowing down the system’s ability to process rapidly-moving night time loads.  When this happens, a queen shipment can, unfortunately, be delayed – typically by a single day.  More often than not, the delayed shipment gets temporarily parked for 24-hours, usually in one of two UPS regional processing centers:  Ontario, CA for the West Coast, and Louisville, KY for the remainder of the United States.

If we think of our traveling bees as human beings, this hold-up can be highly disturbing.  Who among us would want to be trapped in a pitch-black box inside a mechanized industrial processing center for an entire day, with no way to leave and no way to know what is going on?  If this happened to a friend or a relative, we would be terrified for their well-being and almost certainly would lose sleep worrying about their plight.

From a bees’ perspective, however, a situation like this is really no big deal.  First, as insects, honeybees are used to the dark, and actually prefer it.  Second, they are well-contained at room temperature with other attending bees in their shipping containers for care and company.  Confined spaces actually make insects feel more comfortable and at home, not less so.  The shipping packages have plenty of ventilation; and the bees themselves have more than enough food.  And, they were also watered right before shipment.  In short, the queens and their attendant bees are just fine!  This explains why in all of our years of shipping queen bees, except in the rarest of cases, neither we nor our customers have experienced losses with bees that are delayed overnight, or for an entire day in a UPS Customer Center.  Yes, it is inconvenient, annoying, and scary for us and our customers; but it’s not a problem for the bees themselves.

In fact, in exceptionally rare cases, we have seen instances where queen shipments were accidentally misrouted or redirected for days at a time, and still the queen and her attendant bees were no worse for the wear.  Our famous queen, “Wheels,” comes to mind.

Of course, we all worry.  But from a bee’s perspective, what’s the big deal?

The Best and Worst Seasons for Raising Queen Honeybees

At Wildflower Meadows, we raise queen honeybees for a relatively long season, which begins in March and carries on through September.  Our mild weather is typically accommodating for such a long season.  However, the conditions for raising queen honeybees throughout this lengthy season vary, and are not always ideal.  As a result, we have to compensate for fluctuations throughout the year.

In raising queens, the most important factor in determining both the quantity and quality of queens is the condition of the cell building colonies.  A cell building colony is where the grafted queen cells are fed royal jelly and are developed into virgin queen bees.  The condition of the cell building colonies naturally varies throughout the season, and these variations directly affect queen rearing.  Sometimes conditions are good, and sometimes they are not.

The basic requirements of a cell building colony are that it needs to be well-stocked with nurse bees, well-fed with plenty of pollen for producing royal jelly, and consistently strong and healthy.  Most importantly, a cell building colony needs to be well-motivated to produce queen cells.  There is generally one period of the season when all of these conditions come together most perfectly, and this is the ideal season for rearing queens.

Typically, this ideal season is during the mid-to-late spring, which also, not coincidentally, is peak swarming season.  The swarming season is also typically when the most favorable nutrition conditions are available for the cell-building colonies, with plenty of high-quality pollen coming in.  It is when the bees are most naturally motivated to produce queen cells for swarming.  The bees know that the conditions are good and they are motivated to get to business!  In short, the best time of the year to rear queens is generally the same time of year when the bees are most apt to swarm.  The longer that conditions are favorable for swarming, the longer the queen producer has to raise abundant and well-nourished queens.

Some of the worst times of the year to produce queens are during the very early season, during the very late season, and during times of drought.  During the very early season, the ratio of older bees to nurse bees is at its worst, with a high percentage of older bees that overwintered and a much smaller percentage of vital nurse bees.  This is because in the early spring, the cell building colonies have not yet had enough time to begin brood rearing in earnest.  The small number of nurse bees means that less bees are available to properly feed queen cells.  During the early season, a conscientious queen producer needs to limit the production of queen cells to a smaller number; since even though a cell building colony may look strong, it is filled with only a small percentage of nurse bees.

During the later season, a cell building colony is more motivated to shut down for winter than it is to produce swarm cells.  At this point in the season, a cell building colony may still be receiving proper nutrition, but its motivation to produce queen cells is instinctively low.  The queen producer has no way of changing this.  Therefore, once again, the beekeeper needs to limit the production of queen cells to a smaller number towards the end of the season.

Drought poses two different problems:  During drought, the bees are less likely to want to expand or swarm, so their motivation to produce queen cells is reduced, and during drought, nutrition becomes a factor.  The nurse bees have less access to quality pollen sources, which limits their ability to produce nutritious royal jelly.  Queen production can suffer.  Therefore, any conscientious queen producer who desires to continue to rear queens during a period of drought needs to aggressively feed the cell building colony both syrup and a pollen substitute in order to offset the effects of the drought, thereby limiting the ability of the cell building colony to feel the drought’s effects.

Raising Queens vs. Breeding Queens

Being a provider of queen honeybees carries with it several responsibilities.  First, and always foremost, is to raise quality queens.  Anyone who is raising queens has an obligation to focus on quality in all facets of the queen raising process.  This means paying attention to details and not cutting corners.  From selecting a breeder queen, to grafting larvae, to raising queen cells, to optimizing mating conditions, and all the way to caging and shipping queens, any failure to maintain a high standard of quality can, and likely will, result in the raising of sub-standard queens.

Raising queens, however, is only half of the formula for developing a quality queen.  What is equally important is the breeding of queens.  The queen producer wants queens, but the queen breeder wants more.  The queen breeder wants an improvement in the queen stock.  Therefore, breeding cannot be overlooked as a key component of the queen rearing process.  Most every queen producer, large or small, will start with a good breeder queen.  But this is a long way from selecting heritable properties in the bees from generation to generation.

Breeding queens involves reproducing genetic lines of bees from generation to generation by selecting for specific traits that the beekeeper desires.  It requires both promoting positive traits and removing undesirable traits.  It also requires generational focus on combining the very best of genetic material.  While some queen producers may overlook this part of the formula, fortunately, many conscientious queen producers throughout the years – and continuing through today – have understood the entire breadth and responsibility of raising queens.  These individuals are much more than producers of queens; they are true breeders of quality honeybees.

Can Queen Bees Sting?

Every queen bee has a stinger, and is fully capable of using it.  Queen bees, however, almost never sting people; they reserve their stinging for other queen bees.

At Wildflower Meadows, we hold, mark and cage tens of thousands of queens each year.  As uncomfortable as it must be for the queens to endure this, they never take it out on our team by stinging us.  Instead, our queens seem to maintain a peaceful and graceful quality.  They don’t even try to sting us.  Our colleagues and friends from other queen producing companies report the same; queens, whatever their genetics, simply don’t sting humans.  In the miniscule times where it has been reported that a queen actually has stung a person, we have heard that the sting is not as painful to a person as that of a worker bee.

This could be that because, unlike a worker bee, a queen bee’s stinger is smooth and not barbed.  Given that a queen bee’s stinger is smooth, this means that she can theoretically sting multiple times without losing her stinger and dying in the process.  This is unlike what happens to a worker bee, which loses her stinger and dies in the process of stinging.

So, what is the point of the queen bee’s stinger?  Her stinger is reserved as a weapon to use against other queens.  Because queen honeybees rarely tolerate other queen bees within their midst, they need a way to attack them with force.  When a queen encounters another queen, the result is often a fight-to-the-death.  In such a fight, a queen’s stinger serves as her primary weapon.  When a queen bee attacks another queen, it is her stinger that delivers the deathblow.

Queens not only sting other active queens, but they also – believe it or not – sting the developing queen pupae inside of queen cells!  Queens are so hostile towards each other that a mature queen will poke her stinger right through the outside casing of a mature queen cell in order to kill the undeveloped future queen inside the cell.  Thank goodness that we beekeepers are not the recipients of this kind of wrath!

Feeding the Queen Bee

A queen bee, being the queen that she is, is familiar to getting the royal treatment.  Even when it comes to eating, a queen bee is accustomed to being fed by her many attendants.

If you open a beehive and happen to find the queen bee, you will usually notice the queen surrounded by her attendants.  If you continue to look closely, you may even see one of the attending bees step forward and feed the queen mouth-to-mouth.  This is the way that a queen bee normally eats.  A queen honey bee typically eats a predigested blend of nectar or honey fed to her by her loyal court of attendants.

With this kind of care and attention, why would the queen bee need to eat on her own?  She usually does not.  This does not mean, however, that she cannot do so.  Sometimes if a queen bee is hungry enough, she will have no problem dropping her giant head into a honeycomb cell and taking a big drink of nectar.

When we prepare our queen bees for sale, we notice that one of the first things a queen will do when she is placed into a shipping cage is to immediately move to the sugar tube and start eating.  Perhaps this is because the sugar is so tasty and energizing to her.  In this case, she has no problem eating on her own.  Before long, however, we provide the queen with countless attendants in preparation for her shipment.  These attendant bees are always very eager to help.  Once the queen has attendants, she will stop eating on her own and let her attendant bees do all of the work.

In the photo above, a random honeybee dropped from the sky just to have the pleasure of feeding the queen bee!

 

 

 

A Simple Organic Varroa Mite Treatment

As a queen producer, our goal at Wildflower Meadows is to constantly raise the level of natural varroa mite resistance in our stock with each new generation.  For varroa mite control, we rely on the VSH trait that we continuously breed into our stock.  The VSH trait enables the bees themselves to interfere with the varroa mites’ reproduction cycle, thus lowering the spread of varroa mites in the colony.  The VSH trait controls varroa mites naturally, and we rarely see problems with high mite counts.

From time to time, however, beekeepers ask us if we know of any organic varroa mite treatments that complement the VSH trait in Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queens.  Our answer is simple:  With Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queens, you do not need to treat your honeybees for varroa mites.  But, if your goal is to obtain the maximum level of varroa control, we recommend that you consider our simple organic varroa mite treatment.

Wildflower Meadows’ Simple Organic Varroa Mite Treatment *

To understand how this varroa treatment works, it is important to first understand that varroa mites must reproduce inside of a capped brood cell.  They can live inside a colony on the bodies of honeybees, but they cannot reproduce unless they settle inside a capped brood cell for the duration of the brood cell’s life.  When varroa mites are ready to reproduce, they seek out the cells of uncapped larvae that are just about to be capped.  They then enter and hide inside the cells, where they begin their reproductive process once the cells are capped.

Here is the key to controlling varroa reproduction:  If there are no larvae about to be capped, then there is no mite reproduction.  Without larvae being capped, varroa mites have nowhere to go to reproduce.  This is how African honeybees have been able to survive varroa mites so effectively.  Because African honeybees frequently swarm, they regularly create new swarms that often take at least a week or two to get established.  During this swarming period, there is no brood production.  As a result, the varroa mite population in the swarm naturally declines, and the mites have no way of reproducing and gaining a foothold.  The swarm basically starts its new life relatively free of varroa mites.

As beekeepers, we can easily recreate the same broodless conditions inside of our colonies.  The event of requeening is the perfect time to do this.  This simple organic varroa treatment works best during the summer when varroa mite populations are naturally on the rise, and it is an excellent accompaniment to summer or fall requeening.

The simple varroa treatment is to remove the old queen two to three weeks before adding a new Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen.  About five days after removing the old queen, seek out and remove any natural queen cells.  Then check again a few days later to make sure that you did not miss any.  This colony can safely stay queenless for two to three weeks and still have a small amount of brood remaining for introducing the new queen two to three weeks later.  While the colony is queenless, new varroa mite reproduction will be impossible.  Many of the adult varroa mite will die of natural causes, while others will be removed by the bees’ normal grooming.  By the time that the new queen begins laying and her larvae reaches the stage of capping, several weeks will have passed.  During this period, the varroa mite population inside the colony will have been greatly reduced.

If you can recreate this two to three weeks’ window of no mite reproduction within your colony, then the varroa mite population will naturally decline, just as it does in a wild swarm, resulting in a relatively “fresh start” for the bees inside the colony.  Then, if after this period of varroa decline, you add a Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen, the varroa mite population will continue to stay in check.

* This method is only advised for strong and robust colonies that can afford to be queenless for two to three weeks.  We do not advise this method for weak or dwindling colonies.

Should Attendants Be Removed From The Queen Cage?

Some beekeepers advise that before introducing a queen honeybee, the attendants that ship with the queen should be removed from the queen cage prior to introduction.  The theory behind this idea is that the colony that is receiving the new queen might perceive the queen’s attendants as belonging to a separate colony, and therefore start fighting among the bees and possibly injure the new queen along the way.

While this, of course, is theoretically possible, in actuality there is little to no evidence that this really happens.  Beekeepers around the world successfully introduce hundreds of thousands of queens with attendants inside of the queen cages every year, and have done so for countless years without difficulty.  The truth is that, when introduced, the queen pheromone spreads throughout the colony, both through the attendant bees and the colony’s existing bees.  In very short order all of the bees will smell the same.

The far greater risk lies with trying to remove the attendants from the queen cage, while at the same time ensuring that the new queen stays inside the cage.  Even for experienced beekeepers this is not always an easy task.  It is not uncommon for a well-intentioned beekeeper to accidentally injure a queen bee by inadvertently closing the door of the queen cage on one of her fragile legs and/or antennae, or otherwise mishandle her while trying to remove the attendants.  And, how many well-intentioned beekeepers have tried to remove the attendants from the queen cage, and accidentally allow the queen to fly out of the queen cage, to be lost forever?  It is simply much safer to leave the new queen in her queen cage with her attendants, who are already taking excellent care of her.

At Wildflower Meadows, we purposely select young nurse bees as the attendants that we include with our queen bees for sale.  We do this for the primary reason that we believe that young nurse bees are more instinctively inclined to attend to the new queen, and therefore make more conscientious attendants to the queen during shipment and queen introduction.

Attendant bees won’t hurt the queen, and they won’t hurt your colony’s bees, so why not let them be introduced with the new queen?

Optimum genetics

How Long Does A Queen Bee Live?

A queen honeybee can theoretically live up to five years, although the average queen bee lives for approximately two-to-three years.  Queen bees are usually at their most industrious and vigorous in years one and two.  This is one of the main reasons that many beekeepers replace the queens in their colonies after the first or second year of the queen’s life.

A young queen bee is generally more active than an older queen bee.  As a queen bee ages, her egg laying production steadily declines.  She will generally lay fewer eggs per day so that by her third year, her egg laying becomes noticeably less vigorous.  Eventually, a queen honeybee may stop laying eggs completely, or will begin to fill worker cells with unfertilized drone eggs.  This is the sign of a failing queen.  Normally the queen’s colony will notice this decline and begin raising supercedure queen cells to replace the failing queen.

By the time a queen bee reaches her second or third year, she may also look shinier than a younger queen.  This is because a queen’s attendant bees have been constantly grooming and rubbing against her for her entire lifetime!  Over time, this steady attention causes the queen bee’s hairs to fall off on her thorax and abdomen – it seems that queens, like many humans, lose their hair as they age too.

However, even though an older queen may not be as productive as a younger queen, this does not mean that she is not valuable.  At Wildflower Meadows, we prize many of our older queens – especially the highly productive ones.  An older and highly productive queen has demonstrated an inherent vitality that makes her an excellent source of quality drone bees, as well as a fine candidate to possibly become the mother of an artificially inseminated breeder queen for future generations to come.

Queen Spotting

We are pleased to announce the release of a new book about our favorite subject, queen honeybees!  The book, titled “QueenSpotting”, is authored by our friend and fellow beekeeper, Hilary Kearney of Girl Next Door Honey.

Queen spotting, in fact, is what this book is all about.  Hilary challenges readers to “spot the queen” with 48 fold-out visual puzzles — vivid up-close photos of the queen hidden among her many subjects — as well as queen bee chronicles of royal hive happenings such as The Virgin Death Match, The Nuptual Flight (when the queen mates with a cloud of male drones high in the air), and the dramatic Exodus of the Swarm from the hive.

As we all know, whether in a live situation or in a photo, it is not always easy to spot the queen bee.  If you have difficulty spotting queen bees in your colonies, then this book is an enjoyable way to gain some practice and confidence with your queen spotting skills, all while being entertained in what Hilary hopes is a more relaxing environment than with impatient bees buzzing around your head!

“QueenSpotting” also features a section on Wildflower Meadows, entitled “The Experts”, which includes an account of our team members in action, finding and marking Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queen bees.

For further information about “QueenSpotting,” please visit Girl Next Door Honey.