Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Queen is Dead. Long Live the Queen!

June 16, 2010: Ginny and I took a trip out to the hive today, and we made some interesting discoveries.

Firstly, the top feeder was empty, so it could finally be removed, forcing the bees to now forage for all their food. They had already been doing so, as indicated by the amount of pollen stored in the hive, but it's time to get this colony motivated. No more free rides.
Also, as I had predicted last week, there was comb built on 70% of the frames, so I added a second super with eight new frames on top of the first. The colony now has twice as much growing room, and will surely be glad about that.

Last week, I was unable to find any eggs. I had hoped that this week's inspection would reveal some new brood, and I was not disappointed in that regard. After six days, the larvae spin a cocoon around themselves and begin their pupal stage. At this time, their caretakers will build a wax cap over the cells containing the pupae, which will chew their way out through these caps twelve days later as mature adults. There was a good amount of capped brood cells, and their presence was an encouraging sight. I was also able to see some larvae as well, but not as many as I had hoped...

...and I couldn't find the queen.

This was not as encouraging. A productive, egg-laying queen is essential for the survival of the colony. Without her, this generation would be the last, and as the adults die off, the colony will not be able to support itself and there would be little hope for its future.

After removing each frame in turn, and with no queen in sight, I began to despair. My first hive, it seemed, would be a failure. I would watch my bees decrease in numbers over the next couple of months, until finally there would be a pitiful few left in the hive, exposing it to infestation from pests, such as mice and wax moths. A grim prospect indeed, and another setback for my colony, which has already suffered through the stresses of shipping and a late hiving.

However, while I was searching for the queen, I noticed something else: a small, peanut-shaped lump protruding from the comb on the center frame -- a queen cell. When a queen dies, the others in the colony usually notice her absence quickly (within 24 hours), and a general state of emergency is declared. In such circumstances, the workers will designate a new queen from among the larvae already present in the comb, and that's what exactly they did. One of their sisters will soon become their new queen, and she will likely emerge within the next week.

One question remains, however. How did the queen die? Did she succumb to disease or parasites? It's possible. Was she assassinated by the colony? There's a chance. Did I accidentally crush her in my fumbling as a novice beekeeper? Though I hate to admit the possibility, it can't be discounted. Or did she simply abandon the hive? Unlikely, but not unheard of. The answer, unfortunately, will remain a mystery, but I take no small amount of comfort in the fact that the bees know what to do. I'm learning from them with every visit to the hive.

While reviewing the pictures that Ginny took, I noticed that there are, in fact, at least two queen cells, not just one. The workers are hedging their bets. There are a couple of ways this drama can unfold, depending on how close the two (or more) potential new queens are in age. If one emerges first, she will announce her presence to the colony with a loud "piping" sound, which is also a battle cry, challenging her rivals. The other, immature queen(s) still in her cell will "quack" in reply, before she is stung to death within the cell. If they emerge from their cells simultaneously, however, this vocal argument will be followed by a fight to the death, with the survivor becoming the colony's new mother. She will be accepted by the rest of the colony unconditionally, by virtue of her victory, and because she is one of their own. She was elected to the position by her sisters, and raised especially for that purpose.

(Want to hear what that sounds like? Here's a recording of queens vocalizing to each other):

The first sound is a queen "piping" a challenge, and it is answered by another's "quacking."

In either case, the new virgin queen will take her nuptial flight as early as a week after her emergence, mating with up to 15 drones before returning to the hive. Afterward, she will continuously lay eggs for the remainder of her lifetime, picking up where the former queen left off.

I'm looking forward to further inspections. I'm hopeful that my next visit will show evidence of a new queen -- and with good timing and some luck, perhaps we can even record her emergence. Check back soon for updates.

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