Honey Bee Queens

(written Jan 7, 2005) With the warm start to the new year I finally got around to removing the mite strips from the hives on January 1st (should have been done a month or two ago). I had been reading in the bee magazines about how heavy mite losses (that is, bees lost to mites) were expected this winter. A beekeeping friend in PA - after bragging how much honey he had gotten this summer, and how he hadn’t treated his hives for mites in 5 years - wrote in his Christmas card that his hive was dead by November. So I was happy to find that all the hives under my care (4 of my own, and 3 for a neighbor lady) were all doing well. What was really surprising to me was that in 4 of the 7 hives the queens had already started laying eggs again. According to Conventional Wisdom, that does not start until late January, although I’m sure there is a wide range of regional differences.

Fall is the preferred re-queening time, with a healthy young queen to over winter. Supposedly it also helps reduce swarming in the spring, although the bees generally seem to have their own minds on that one. I have been experimenting with different breeds of bees with two considerations in mind: mites, and gentleness (considering the hives are being kept in a residential area). The normal yellow/orange/banded honey bee most often seen is the “Italian” breed. Reasonably docile, although the individual genetics and other factors can range from extremely gentle to Don’t Mess With That Hive. Other bees are better known for gentleness, although most of them are not as good at honey production. I’ve tried “Caucasian” bees before, and this year I decided to try “New World Carniolans” - brown bees described as mite resistant and very gentle, although they supposedly like to swarm.

Generally, the feistier a hive is, the less likely it is to accept a new queen, especially one of a different breed. So I started out by introducing my new queens into small “nucleus” colonies, which were less likely to have an attitude about new things. After being accepted there, I moved those nucs, intact, into sections of the full hives, separated by newspaper. That way the queen is with established friendly bees, and it takes awhile for the bees to eat through the newspaper, by which time they should all be friends. The tricky part of all that is finding and removing the old queen first. Of course, the feistier the hive, the harder she can be to find. Sometimes you just have to work in the middle of an angry bee cloud, and hope you didn’t leave any openings in your suit…

Anyhow, all that went well - I found all the new queens still alive and laying eggs after several days. But the bees were making “supersedure” queen cells - which means they had it in mind to replace her. I had it in mind that they would NOT replace her. So out came the queen cells, which meant searching through every frame in every hive to make sure I had not missed any. Next week - same story - more queen cells, more searching. This started at the beginning of September. Total time from egg to hatching for a queen is 16 days, but it may be several days before a queen cell is recognized, so that meant I had to check *every* week if they were not going to get one over on me.
They were determined, but so was I. After 3 weeks the joke would have been on them anyway, because they would have been creating their new queen from the eggs of the queen they were trying to replace. But the mating would have probably been with some other breed, which would have diluted the original characteristics. Besides, this had become a battle of wills! After awhile, it also became a matter of concern for their survival. If a new queen emerged in say, late October, would the weather and other factors still allow a mating flight? If not mated within a certain window of time, the hive would essentially be queenless and probably not survive the winter. I guess the bees were considering at least part of this - drones (male bees) had all but disappeared from the hives in early Fall, then then drone cells started appearing and soon there was a healthy population of them. Still, if anything went wrong, I would lose the hive. So we kept up our battle. Out of the 3 hives I introduced the NWC’s to, one of them (the gentlest one - wouldn’t you know it) gave up the battle early on and happily accepted the new queen. It was, of course, the less mild-mannered ones who continued to protest.

After going into the hives *every week* since September, we finally reached a standoff around Thanksgiving. The weather was getting cold enough to make it hard to find days to go into the hives, and the brood nest portion of the hive was shrinking as the egg laying was tapering off. There were still queen cells being made, but not as many and not as often. I just had to trust at that point that even if they succeeded in creating a new queen, that they would not let her kill off the other one.

While still on bees, I just read an interesting piece about some research on what bees do when a swarm is caught in the rain. What they found is that all the bees on the outside of the swarm-cluster turn so they are head-up, and tuck their heads under the abdomen of the bee above them. They close their wings tightly over their own abdomens, and pack in more closely side to side - thus forming a kind of bee umbrella!

While we’re on warm winter weather - Monday morning - the 3rd of January - I walked out to the pond and found a frog sitting up on some vegetation! I believe that now makes every month of the year that we’ve seen a frog out and about.


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