Mated Queen Bees

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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 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.

The Composure of A Well-Mated Queen Bee

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

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

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

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

Next Year’s Champions

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

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

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

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

The Final Fall Queens

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

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

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

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

Ideal Queen Bee Mating Conditions

Queen honeybees mate outside the hive in the open while flying, usually in the afternoon.  The mating takes place over the course of several consecutive days.  Mated queen bees typically mate with approximately 10 to 20 drones over the course of their mating flights.  Once the queen bee has mated she will never leave the colony again (unless the colony swarms and she leaves with the swarm.)

Because queen bee mating takes place outside in the open, the weather conditions are critical.  What makes for the best for ideal mating?

  • Temperatures of at least 69º Fahrenheit (but not exceeding 104º)
  • Not too much wind
  • No rain
  • Drones nearby, usually within a mile, so that the queen bee can find drone congregation areas

Poor weather will delay a queen’s mating, and delay her ability to start laying eggs.  If a virgin queen is confined to her hive for over three weeks due to adverse weather, or if she is unsuccessful in her mating efforts during this time, she eventually will begin to lay eggs anyway.  In this case, however, she will only have unfertilized eggs to lay, and will be a considered “drone layer.”

A Good Frame of Brood

To produce optimally mated queen bees, it is the queen breeders’ responsibility to select for the highest quality genetic stock possible.  In evaluating a colony, we like to keep in mind that any given colony consists of not one, but two generations of bees:  the queen bee, who is the mother of the colony, and her offspring, the second generation.  One of the components of evaluating the first generation, the queen bee, is to examine the quantity and consistency of her brood laying.

A quality queen honeybee lays her brood in a tight circular pattern leaving not too many holes within the brood pattern.  At a minimum there should not be less than 15 empty cells per hundred (or 85% viable brood).  Ideally, in the best displays of brood laying, a top quality queen bee will not miss more than 5 cells per hundred (95% viable brood).  Sometimes, you find a frame that is corner-to-corner or wall-to-wall with brood.  This is what is affectionately known as an “egg-laying machine!”

Wildflower Meadows | Mated Queen Bees - Bee Eggs Photo

Eggs

If you look carefully you will see newly laid eggs inside the honeycomb cells.  A successfully mated queen bee can produce approximately 500,000 eggs over the course of her lifetime.

During the spring and summer, a queen bee lays an average of 1,200 to 1,500 eggs per day.  A real go-getter can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day!  (Some sources say that this number can even reach 3,000).  A young and newly mated queen bee, however, needs time to work up to this kind of production.  She may start with a smaller and perhaps irregular laying rate until she reaches her optimum.

The amount of eggs that a queen bee lays depends on the time of the season, the quality of the nectar flow, the kind of food being fed to her by the nurse bees, the strength of the colony, and the amount of empty space available.  The eggs pictured here are worker bee eggs.  However, the queen determines which kind of eggs to lay as she is laying them.  She can lay either worker eggs or drone eggs by fertilizing or not fertilizing them at the time of laying them.  Fertilized eggs become workers; unfertilized eggs become drones.