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Two Queens in a Hive

Most beekeepers know that a hive only contains a single queen. However, this isn’t necessarily always true. There are times when a colony may have two queens; and while it’s usually short-lived, the scenario probably happens more often than most beekeepers realize.

As we know, a queen bee releases pheromones to make the worker bees aware of her presence, and that she’s actively laying fertile eggs. As the queen ages, these pheromones naturally weaken, which lets the worker bees know it’s time to start the process of raising a new queen. Worker bees may plan to supersede an older queen when they notice a decline in her productivity as well.

An instance where a hive has multiple queens may occur when a new queen hatches while the old queen is still living. After a daughter hatches, one of the following scenarios will likely transpire – either the worker bees will kill the old queen, the two queens will fight to the death, or the hive will swarm. Unfortunately, there is no way for beekeepers to know how their hive will handle this situation, as there are a lot of factors in play.

More often than not, an old queen will not live long after a new queen has hatched. If the newly hatched queen doesn’t kill her, the worker bees themselves may do so. Worker bees will kill their old queen when they notice she’s consistently laying infertile eggs, and they’re comfortable that the new queen is mated and producing well.  A colony will typically prefer the newer and younger queen who, of the two, more often than not will have the stronger performance and pheromone signature.

However, if the older queen is still performing well, the worker bees may alternatively decide to separate the queens into different areas of the hive. This prevents the queens from killing one another and allows the hive to be temporarily more productive – at least until nature inevitably takes its course.

Many times, beekeepers fail to realize they are dealing with multiple queens.  Typically, when a beekeeper is requeening a colony, he or she will stop looking for a queen as soon as the old queen is spotted, not realizing there may actually be yet another queen in the colony.  This can be a challenge when beekeepers are actively trying to introduce a new high-quality queen they have purchased. If a beekeeper attempts to introduce a new queen, thinking the hive is queenless when it’s not, the colony will, unfortunately, almost certainly not accept the new queen – which will likely end in a failed queen installation.

How Far Should Beehives Be Placed from Your Home?

Whether you’re an avid beekeeper or a “newbee,” you’ve probably wondered where is the best spot to place your hive. If you’re planning to keep your beehive in your backyard and accessible from your home, there are definitely a few things you should consider. But just how close to your house can you put your hive?

The general rule is there should be a minimum of 4-feet behind and on either side of the hive, with a minimum of 25-feet of clearance at the entrance – but there’s really no cut-and-dry answer for this. In the end, most beekeepers – including us here at Wildflower Meadows – will say to use common sense and consider your personal situation.  Each home, property, and neighborhood are unique, and each will offer its own hurdles.   However, there are a few additional and critical aspects to consider when choosing where to place a beehive on your property.

Before you start searching for the perfect spot on your property, you should first make sure beekeeping is allowed where you live. Some cities and states may have zoning restrictions on beekeeping, or on the number of hives that are permitted on a property. Some homeowners’ associations and private neighborhoods may also have policies that pertain to beekeeping, so be sure to ask around before getting too far ahead in the process.

When choosing a hive site, it’s important to remember that while most honeybees are docile, some colonies can be more defensive than others. Even if you keep gentle bee stock, there are certain times of the year or situations where the temperament of the hive can be affected – adverse weather, excessive disturbances, or a pest infestation for example.  Keeping the entrance of your hive away from high traffic areas of your yard, or too close to the entrances of your home is best to avoid annoyances or stings.

Even though you’re a fan of bees, your friends, family members, or neighbors may not be as keen. A curious child or pet that wanders too close to the hive could alert worker bees – a situation you’d likely prefer to avoid.  To help keep the peace between your household and your beehive, it is best to keep the hive in an area away from children and high traffic areas of your outdoor space.

Foot traffic isn’t the only issue with residential beekeeping, vehicle traffic can pose problems to your colony too.  Windshields are unfortunately a popular bee graveyard.  While honeybees are known to fly miles away from their home to forage for nectar, they do need some space to reach a high altitude. Without any nearby obstacles, bees will generally require about 6 feet of linear space to gain 6 feet of altitude – similar to when a plane takes off on a runway.

Providing this amount of “runway” may not be ideal or available for you, so you might want to encourage your bees to gain altitude more rapidly by keeping your beehives surrounded by tall shrubs, fences or walls.   This will force your bees to reach altitude more rapidly, keeping them away from the ground level right from the start.  (Nevertheless, there are limitations to this strategy, and one must use common sense.  For example, if your home is more than two stories tall and your beehive’s entrance is placed too close to your home, one of two things can happen. Your bees will either need to expend more energy to fly up and over your home, or the bees will avoid flying in that direction altogether, limiting their foraging options.)   Of course, some beekeepers choose to place beehives on their rooftops, as it’s the easiest way to get bees flying at a higher altitude and away from human hazards.

Finally, no matter where you choose to place your hive, you will always also want to make sure that bees have access to a reliable and clean water source.

How Does a Bee Become a Queen Bee?

When we raise queens here at Wildflower Meadows, we start the process by grafting worker larvae from our breeder queens.  This procedure transfers the genetic material from our champion breeder queens to our cell building colonies, that will raise the queens which we sell year-round.

Did you happen to catch the words “worker larvae?” Isn’t it strange that the same larvae that were once destined to become worker bees, can be redirected into becoming queen bees? An individual fertilized larva contains the genetic material to become either a worker bee or a queen bee. What happens is that the bees themselves do a sort of genetic modification to the larva, depending on their desired outcome.

When we place these worker larvae into one of our powerful cell-building colonies, the colonies are already strong and queenless. They have a high motivation to develop queens. So, how does a beehive change the course of development of worker larvae to become queen larvae when all the larvae originates from the same source?

Scientists and beekeepers have been asking this question for ages. An obvious clue to the answer lies in the different diets of these two types of honeybees. Queen bee larvae are fed royal jelly, whereas worker bee larvae are fed worker jelly.  There seems to be no other variable to explain the change in development. Yet, how does diet trigger certain genes to be activated?

For many years, scientists and beekeepers have assumed that because a queen larva is fed royal jelly, the trigger to queen development must lie within the royal jelly itself. In fact, most scientists always assumed that there was some magical ingredient within royal jelly that initiates the genetic modification, triggering fertility, and queueing the development of ovaries, etc.

We now know that this is not entirely true.

While it is certainly diet that determines a larva’s development, scientists have discovered there’s no magical ingredient in royal jelly which triggers queen development. It’s actually the diet of the workers that is suppressing queen development!

Worker bee jelly, unlike royal jelly, contains pollen and honey. Pollen and honey, being directly derived from plants, contain plant materials known as phenolic acids, or flavonoids. These phenolic acids deactivate the genes responsible for developing ovaries and reproductive systems. In other words, these phenolic acids suppress queen development in workers.

Royal jelly, on the other hand, is entirely a secretion of bees.  It is a pure bee product that does not contain any plant product – it is completely, 100%, devoid of phenolic acids. The absence of phenolic acids allows a queen bee to fully activate her reproductive genes and completely develop her robust reproductive system.

How efficient is it that honeybees have developed such an amazing way of raising two very different types of bees from the same source? Think of how much more complicated a beehive would be if the bees required different genetic larvae for both workers and queens. By performing this genetic modification on the same source, honeybees have developed an elegant solution for raising queen bees on demand!

Fertilized vs. Unfertilized Eggs – A Queen Bee’s Gender Reveal Party

Some of us enjoy celebrating “gender reveal parties” – because the truth is, no one really knows whether a human infant will be male or female until birth (or close to birth in the case of an ultrasound.) Before this technology, however, it was anyone’s guess whether a child would be born as a boy or a girl. During the early stages of pregnancy, the odds of a child developing as one or the other are random, and more or less equal to a coin toss.

Imagine, however, if we humans could determine the sex of our offspring – not when the child was born, nor earlier with an ultrasound scan, but rather at the time of conception! How different and crazy would our world be if there were such a scenario?

Believe it or not, this is the way honeybees determine the sex of their offspring. It’s actually the queen who dictates the sex of her offspring – literally at the time of egg-laying. When a queen lays an egg, she has her own method of laying either a fertilized or unfertilized egg.  As the egg passes through her oviduct, the queen can choose to fertilize the egg by releasing a tiny amount of her stored sperm from her spermatheca. This will fertilize the egg. Conversely, the queen can also choose to not fertilize the egg.

A fertilized egg will become a female honeybee – either a worker bee or a queen bee. An unfertilized egg will develop into a male honeybee – destined to be a drone. In a healthy colony with a healthy queen, most eggs are fertilized. This makes sense since the vast majority of honeybee colonies consist of worker bees, which are always female.

It is astonishing that a single insect, the queen, has this powerful ability to dictate the sex of her offspring right at the time of conception. It is equally astonishing that somehow, she can determine the right quantity of drones and the right seasonality for laying drones at any given time. All of this is within her power, and somehow, she knows exactly what to do.

How much of this decision-making lies within the queen herself versus within the colony is not entirely clear. Is the colony acting in the same way that a baseball catcher acts with a pitcher, calling the type of pitch to throw? Or is the pitcher herself calling the shots in this case? Scientists believe that both are happening, although the queen clearly dictates the final decision.

The colony itself has some influence in determining the number of drones by the way they choose to allocate the honeycomb when building. If the worker bees construct a large amount of drone-sized comb and point the queen towards it then the queen will lay more unfertilized eggs (drones). If the colony does not build any drone-sized honeycomb, then the queen will only lay worker brood. With no appropriately sized comb, what choice does the queen have after all? It is also possible for worker bees to use pheromone signals to help influence the overall frequency of drone laying.

Overwintering Honeybees In A Single Deep Super

In the height of winter, beehives shut down to varying degrees.  In Southern California, however, many of our beehives remain active, though to a much lesser extent than during the spring or summer months.  During winter, the bees wait for the relatively mild weather, which reliably comes along from time to time.  When a pleasant day does arrive, the bees can be found out on the go, foraging on the many winter blossoms such as jade and eucalyptus.

Most North American beekeepers overwinter their colonies in a “double deep” configuration, meaning that the colony heads into winter with two deep supers.  The colder and longer the winter, the more stores of honey are needed for the colony to ensure survival.  In the northern parts of the United States, most beekeepers like to have the top box solidly filled with honey to minimize the risk of starvation.  This top box, heavy with honey, also provides a layer of insulation from the cold.

Here in Southern California, however, the wintering conditions are much milder.  Because our bees have the year-round opportunity to forage, and we have the availability to feed our bees, if necessary, during winter, we often prefer to overwinter our colonies in a “single deep” configuration – compressing the bees into one deep super.  California bees seem to overwinter well in a single hive body.  This tight configuration minimizes empty air space and condensation, allowing the bees to control their brood temperatures when stormy weather and cooler nights prevail.  In a single box, they keep their cluster tight, and have plenty of population packed around the winter brood nest.  This tight space also keeps the bees relatively compressed around the entrance, affording them better protection against robber bees and other pests.

As humans, we might find such crowded conditions completely unacceptable.  As insects, however, honeybees generally have no problem with these slightly crowded conditions – especially in winter.  When the weather is cold, bees actually seem to enjoy the company of their sisters and thrive in their tight living spaces!

Honeybees And Bears

Of all the natural predators of honeybees, such as birds, skunks, raccoons, and badgers, probably none are as fearsome and notorious to bees and beekeepers alike, as bears.  Bears love to eat bee larva, bee brood, and to a lesser extent, honey.  With this appetite for bee products, they seem to be more interested in beehives than even the most dedicated beekeeper!  It is no coincidence that many honey containers are shaped like bears.  Keep in mind that even Winnie the Pooh loves “hunny.”

The problem, for both the bees and their beekeepers, is that when bears visit an apiary, the damage they cause is almost always devastating.  Bears do not carefully harvest honey like we beekeepers do.  No, they pick up entire colonies and strew them about the ground; destroying the equipment and creating havoc in the apiary.  If you have ever visited an apiary after a bear visit, your first impression will be is that it looks like a war zone, with no survivors.  Damaged and destroyed equipment will be strewn everywhere.

You would think that a colony’s guard bees would be able to scare a bear away with their stings, but the bears’ fur coats are so thick that the bees’ stingers can not really penetrate well enough to get to a bear’s skin.  The only vulnerable spot on a bear is its face.  This is perhaps why bees have evolved over the years to focus on stinging the head and face of an intruder.  Most beekeepers know that angry bees typically aim for the head.  This is likely an evolutionary and instinctive response against bear attacks.  It is also why the beekeeping veil is the most important piece of personal protection for a beekeeper.

The best and probably only practical defense against bears is to encircle vulnerable apiaries with electric fencing.  As a beekeeper, this is an expensive solution, however, much less expensive than losing an entire apiary of bees and equipment with every bear attack.  Fortunately, most beekeeping supply companies sell these fences, many of which are solar powered.

If only bears could realize how dependent they are on honeybees, just like the rest of us, they might show a little more compassion to the colonies that they attack.  It is estimated that about 15 percent of a bear’s diet consists of berries, all of which require pollination, much of which is done by honeybees.  Many researchers suspect that bears are already being adversely affected by the decline in wild bee populations.  Fewer pollinators mean fewer berries, which in turn affects the bears’ nutrition and foraging behavior.

Queen Cups vs. Queen Cells

Honeybees are natural comb builders and always seem to be working on some sort of construction or renovation within their hive.  When bees are working on frames of honeycomb, they construct two sizes of honeycomb cells: worker-sized (or regular) honeycomb, or drone-sized (larger) honeycomb. These two sizes accommodate the size difference between worker bees and drone bees.  Drone honeybees are larger than workers, and can’t really fit into a regular honeycomb cell.

Most of the honeycomb that bees build is regular size, which the bees utilize for raising worker bees.  This makes sense since the vast majority of bees in any beehive consist of regular worker honeybees.  A smaller percentage of honeycomb, however, is larger sized, which the hive uses to raise drone honeybees.  In a healthy beehive, there are always more worker bees than drone bees so it is understandable that there would be more worker-sized comb cells than drone-sized comb cells.

What about the queen though?

Amid all this comb construction, the bees will occasionally decide to build a placeholder for a future queen cell – this is a queen cup.  A queen cup looks like an upside-down teacup.  It is more or less the foundation of a queen cell, without actually being a queen cell.  It is as if the bees have done the math – about 90% of a hive consists of worker bees, about 10% consists of drones, and there is a tiny, minuscule less-than-1% percent consisting of the one and only queen.  As a percentage basis, queens are a negligible percent of the hive’s population.  Therefore, the amount of comb dedicated to raising queens needs to be equally negligible.  The queen cup is a tiny acknowledgment that once in a while a beehive needs to raise a new queen.

Most of the time queen cups are unused and can linger around for years at a time.  If a beekeeper discovers a queen cup in a colony it is no cause for concern, unlike finding a queen cell.  The queen cup is merely a placeholder, for potential use at a later date if the hive decides for whatever reason to raise a new queen.  Having the queen cups in place makes building future queen cells just a little bit easier for the bees.

However, when a beekeeper discovers an actual live queen cell inside a colony, it is almost always a cause for concern.  Honeybees do not build queen cells unless they have an immediate and specific reason – unlike queen cups which bees will build just for their own sake. If honeybees are constructing queen cells it is likely due to one of several reasons.  From the beekeeper’s perspective, none of these reasons are good.

A few of the most common reasons bees that bees construct queen cells include:

  1. The hive is preparing to swarm
  2. The colony is without a queen and is in the process of raising an emergency replacement.
  3. The colony has decided that the current queen is of poor quality and needs to be replaced.

Absconding Bees

The fall season of beekeeping is arguably the worst time of year to be a beekeeper.  All of the typical adversities of beekeeping are intensified in the fall:  Lack of forage, drought, heat and fire risk (especially in the western states), varroa mites, food shortages, yellow jackets, etc.  With all of these adverse conditions, sometimes it seems like it’s a miracle that the bees can survive at all at this time of the year.  At Wildflower Meadows, we typically experience our largest colony losses in the autumn months of September and October.  It is not surprising, as the bees have so much conspiring against them in the fall.

Because of this, once our queen production comes to an end in September, our beekeepers rapidly switch gears and aggressively focus on helping our bees survive these meager months – especially the more vulnerable smaller colonies and mating nucs that were just part of our recent queen production.

We feed our bees aggressively, and protect them to the best of our ability against these harsh elements.  We feed pollen patties and other nutritional supplements; we expand the fire breaks around each apiary; we put out ant baits and yellow jacket baits to keep these aggressive pests (somewhat) under control; we make sure that every yard has continued access to reliable fresh water; and we sometimes place additional lids on top of our colonies for additional shade and heat protection.

In spite of all of these efforts, sometimes it is simply not enough.  When a colony of bees becomes overly stressed for any or all of the above reasons, it may get to the point where the bees themselves decide “enough is enough.”  They’ve had it, and they want out.   And so, they leave . . .

Sometimes in the fall we find that there is an uptick in “swarming.”  Our beekeepers find what appear to be giant swarms of bees hanging around the edge of our apiaries.  Other giant swarms seem to arrive out of nowhere.   These swarms are unusual, as that unlike spring swarms, they often seem reluctant to want to settle into hive bodies.  Of course, these fall swarms are not like the standard spring swarms; they are actually entire colonies of bees that are on the run.  And, of course they don’t want to go back into boxes.  They just escaped one, and the conditions were terrible!

In the beekeeping world, this is called absconding.  Absconding almost always takes place in the fall.  Sadly, these absconding bees have almost no chance of surviving the winter.  Like desperate refugees leaving a war zone with few options, they have scarce resources and limited realistic possibilities for survival.  The best they can hope for is that a conscientious beekeeper can rescue them, give them a new and safe home, feed and treat them well, and offer them a fighting chance to survive into the next season.

Personal Hygiene And Honeybees

At the risk of offending, it’s time to get honest.  As crazy as this may sound, as a beekeeper, you should consider your hygiene around your bees.  The bees themselves value hygiene and are very sensitive to odors.  That is why a conscientious beekeeper does the same.

If you approach your colonies with strong body odors, strong breath, or strong perfumes, you will often pay the price with angry bees.  Bees do not appreciate anything that makes you smell like a wild animal, or alternatively, excessively perfumed and unnatural.  Strong odors typically cause honeybees to behave more aggressively.  They make you more conspicuous and seem like more of a threat.  At times, here at Wildflower Meadows, we have noticed this pattern where a clean, hygienic employee can go a whole day without a single sting, while his or her partner with a messy bee suit and poor hygiene is harassed by the very same bees, all along while doing the same work and working right next to the clean employee!

This brings up an important point about bee suits.  They need to be washed and kept clean.  Especially if you were stung on a previous bee inspection, as your bee suit will retain the pheromone of the last sting or stings.  It is specifically that particular alarm pheromone that is the worst possible odor to have when approaching a bee colony.  It alerts the guard bees that you have already been stung at least once, and are therefore are likely a threat.  The venom odor, which you may not be able to smell, but that bees certainly can, is not a good way to win your bees’ favor with you!

Another point to consider is that leather watch bands can also be a problem around the bees.  Besides the fact that leather has the odor of an animal, a dark color can also aggravate bees, especially when it is moving rapidly back and forth in front of your bees’ eyes.  Honeybees don’t care about the time and don’t see a watch; what they do see is a piece of dark animal skin flashing in front of them.  What’s worse, is that if the watch band gets stung, then the pheromone will be embedded in the watch band, making it even more disturbing to the hive.

One of the golden rules of beekeeping is that when working with a hive, you want to approach the bees in a calm and respectful manner.  In many ways, when you are working with a colony of bees, you become their guest, or perhaps even an extension of their very collective – their connection to the human world.  You are their caretaker and become a part of the hive.  Considering that the bees place such a high importance on odors and pheromones – much more than we do – it is in your best interest that you show the bees this respect and do the same.  Your bees will be more likely to welcome you into their world with open wings!

A Queen’s Unique Scent

Those of us who live closely with others know that each individual person carries his or her own distinctive scent.  An attentive partner can often pick up their partner’s scent in their clothes, their bedding, or even in their living space.  If you are living closely with someone, you very quickly get to know that person’s unique scent.  It becomes a part of your world, and you grow comfortable with it.

The same is true for a colony of honeybees and their queen.  Most beekeepers are aware that all queens carry a special “queen pheromone” that distinguishes the scent of a queen bee from a worker bee.  It is obvious simply from watching basic honeybee behavior that the worker bees are quickly able to identify the queen bee, and it seems equally obvious that a pheromone is driving the behavior.  What is less well known, however, is that beyond this general queen pheromone, each individual queen has her own unique pheromone or scent, which is distinctly individual to her, and her alone.

When a swarm is presented with two queens at a distance, one of which is their own and the other an imposter, the swarm will always select its own queen and will attack the imposter.  It instantly recognizes the unique pheromone of its own queen even though both, obviously, smell like queens.  One smells like their queen and the other does not.

One might think that a queen’s unique pheromone signature might be driven by the fragrance of the blossoms that the colony is foraging in.  While this is somewhat true, it is only part of the picture.  For example, if a colony has been foraging on sage blossoms, the colony and the queen might begin to take on the aroma of sage.  This effect, however, is only an enhancement to the underlying scent, which remains unique and inherent in each individual queen.  Scientists have proven this by removing a colony’s queen, exposing her to a strong but different scent, and then reintroducing her to her colony.  The bees still recognized their queen’s underlying pheromone, even though it appeared to have been overwhelmed with a different scent.

What does this mean for a beekeeper?  A conscientious beekeeper must be aware that any new queen is always going to smell differently than a previous queen, and the bees will know this immediately.  Don’t be fooled, they are going to recognize this each and every time.  This is why we beekeepers use queen cages and sugar candy to slow a queen’s introduction, to allow time for the colony to grow accustomed to their new queen’s unique pheromone signature.  It is also why it is often good advice to not disturb a colony shortly after a queen introduction.  When a new queen is becoming established in a colony, the hive requires a certain amount of time to become intimate with that queen’s unique pheromone, and to claim that queen and her pheromone as their own.  Any disturbance that disrupts the transmission of this new pheromone can potentially create confusion inside the colony, possibly resulting in the colony mistakenly identifying the new queen as an imposter, and thus attacking her.