Mated Queen Bees

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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.

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.

How To Bank Queens

When you have more queens on hand than you know what to do with, then it’s probably time to think about banking them.  Banking queens is a way to keep queens healthy over the long-term before they are placed inside their actual colonies.  Although at Wildflower Meadows we typically sell our queens quickly after pulling them, we still nevertheless need to maintain queen banks throughout the season.  As in any queen rearing operation, there are always queen bees coming and going.  When a Wildflower Meadows’ queen is standing by for shipment, she sometimes needs a comfortable ‘bed and breakfast’ to temporarily be housed safely and professionally.  Afterall, she is royalty!

Whether you are banking a hundred or more queens at a time, or just one or two, the principals of successful queen banking are always the same.  The key to your success, and by far the most important component of your banking system, is that you maintain a strong, healthy banking colony that is both well-fed and queenless throughout the period of banking.

Traditional beekeeping advice often says that you can bank queens in a colony that has its own queen as long as you keep the queen bank over a queen excluder.  However, at Wildflower Meadows, we do not subscribe to this view.  This approach often results in worker bees attacking the banked queens, which can unnecessarily cause stress or losses to the queens in the bank.  We have found that it is best that the banking colony has no queen of its own, as this makes it very receptive towards caring for and properly attending to the banked queens.

Your banking colony should always be well fed.  At Wildflower Meadows we never stop feeding our banking colonies.  The syrup flows from March through September and it never stops.  This ensures that the attending bees inside of the banks always have more than enough resources to take excellent care of the queens.  If you are banking queens for more than a week or two, you also will need to maintain your queen bank by removing any natural queen cells inside the bank, and by continually adding brood.  You always want a good supply of young nurse bees on hand in your bank, because these are the bees that focus on taking care of your precious queens.  When you are banking queens, nurse bees are your friends.  If you don’t keep adding brood, you will quickly run out of nurse bees, and your queens will suffer the consequences.

Once your banking colony is well fed, strong and queenless, it is ready to receive the banked queens.  You will want to have some system for storing the queens inside the colony.  The first thing is to make sure that the banked bees have no access to releasing the queens!  If you are banking just a few queens, the easiest approach is to place a piece of heavy-duty tape around the bottom of the cage, blocking any access to the candy or cork.

There are different methods for placing the queens inside of the banking colony.  At Wildflower Meadows, we use what is known as a “banking frame,” which is a specialized beekeeping frame that is designed to hold 132 queens at a time.  This frame takes up the space of two normal Langstroth frames inside a deep hive body.

You don’t necessarily need a banking frame, however, to successfully bank queens.  If you are banking for a relatively short amount of time and don’t mind cleaning up a little extra burr comb, you can simply remove two frames from your banking colony, and creatively place your queens inside the gap you’ve created, making sure to leave enough space for the bees to attend to the queens.   If you have wooden cages, you could assemble “groups” of ten queens or so with a rubber band, and stack them inside the gap.  Always keep in mind that your nurse bees need to have easy access to the queens.  If possible, you should also place the queens towards the center of the colony, well below the lid, as excessive heat may cause damage.

Best practices call for banking queens without any attendants inside the cages.  Theoretically, this is to keep the bees in the bank focused on the queens directly rather than on the attendants in the cages, which may have different pheromones and repel or fight with the banking colony.  In our experience, however, this is rarely the case.  Usually, the attendants inside of the cages combine forces in a friendly manner with the attendants in the bank and work together harmoniously to take care of the queens.  Nevertheless, to be safe, especially when banking over the long term, it is always better to bank queens without attendants inside the individual cages.

The Pros And Cons Of Early Season Queen Bees

One of the constants in the world of beekeeping is that most beekeepers prefer to order and receive queen bees as early in the season as possible.  Having access to early season queens means that a beekeeper can divide colonies at the front end of the season, well before the spring honey flow begins in earnest, and well before the risk of swarming gets out of hand.  It also means that winter losses can be recovered quickly; with these new colonies getting an early start to the season with young, vigorous queens.  These young colonies typically have an excellent chance to build up rapidly in advance of the main honey flows.  Young queens are also less likely to swarm, which is another benefit of having an early-season queen prior to the swarming season.

All things being equal, a young queen is better than an old queen, so having young queens in hand as the beekeeping season begins is often an ideal way to get the season off to a good start.

However, with Mother Nature, not all things are equal.

In our current era of adverse climate conditions and high colony losses, counting on early season queens is not always a successful strategy.  First and foremost, because of the relentless trend towards higher annual bee losses, the demand for queen bees in general – and early season queens in particular – far outpaces the supply.  In short, it can be difficult to obtain early season queens, at any price.  Nearly all beekeepers, from the small backyard hobbyist, to the small-scale part-timer, to full commercial operations, and the queen breeders themselves, face high losses that need to be replaced each and every year.  These losses come from various sources, such as pesticides, varroa mites, viruses, nutrition, extreme weather, and increasingly, fire.  Each loss that needs to be replaced requires a new queen bee.  And, unfortunately, most queen breeders cannot produce enough queen bees during the earliest portion of the season to meet this tremendous demand.  Therefore, availability is usually extremely limited, or even non-existent, during the earliest portion of the season.

The availability, and quality, of early season queens is also more greatly affected by weather conditions, unlike queens that are produced later in the year.  Here in Southern California, while our spring and early summer weather is known for generally being sunny and pleasant, the weather in March and April can often be unpredictable, and sometimes downright stormy.  This means that the earliest queens may not always experience the most ideal mating conditions.  Even though early season drones are usually more than plentiful, due to weather, these drones may not be able to fly (or to fly in sufficient numbers) to ensure successful queen mating.  This means that sometimes, in spite of a queen breeder’s best intentions, an early season queen may not have mated as well as a later season queen, who will have experienced ideal weather for her mating flights.

Given these limitations, in recent years, many beekeepers have switched to a strategy of securing queens later in the season, when a large number of high-quality queens are readily available.  Instead of utilizing the early spring for dividing colonies, these beekeepers instead divide colonies later in the season, utilizing the last part of the summer honey flow to divide colonies and make up any losses.

There are several advantages to this strategy.  First, high-quality well-mated queens are usually readily available later in the season, and it is much easier to reliably obtain them.  Second, by not dividing colonies before the first honey flow, a beekeeper can head into the earliest portion of the honey making season with incredibly strong and powerful bee colonies.  A strong colony will nearly always produce more honey than an average colony.

And, finally, when colonies are divided later in the season, these newly created colonies head into the critical autumn season with relatively young and vigorous queens.  These young queens are often very enthusiastic about laying eggs upon their arrival, often resulting in a robust autumn build-up.  This typically ensures that the late summer divides have a near ideal bee population heading into winter, bettering their chances for winter survival.

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?

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!

 

 

 

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.