Today’s post isn’t about bees. Well, perhaps a little. I’m trying to find my posting rhythm here in the blogging arena, like music notes and the spaces between them, creating a melody instead of a cacophony of sound.
The trick it seems is to find that sweet spot between overwhelm and disinterest. Not so many that you swipe it from your inbox before reading thinking, “yeah, yeah, not today,” and not so few that you forget how amazing bees are.
How to do this? When is Bee-day? Well, of course, Bee-day is B-day. I’ll explain. As a teacher with the North Penn School District, I was part of something bigger. The students learned biology from me; English, History, Art and Math from others. I thrived on the routine: bells, schedules, the students that passed through my classroom daily, the quiet at the end of each day when I strolled down the hall to Mary’s classroom to brainstorm the next day’s nerdy-bio trivia fact. And Letter Days. Instead of a 5-day schedule, the district operated on an A-F Letter Day schedule. For instance, if A-day fell on a Monday one week, it was on Tuesday the following week, Wednesday the next and so on. The other letters lined up accordingly. If there was a snow day or a short week, we picked up where we left off, C following B following A, etc. Simple, continuous, rhythmic.
This time of year as the buses rumble by again, I miss teaching biology and my routine more than ever . . . even after 8 years. I like to be productive, useful, a contributing member of society. My job fills that need. But I also miss being able to freely express my biology nerdiness. It seems I’ve unconsciously taken the biology I had immersed myself in and channeled it into bees, one of the best examples in nature of organisms working together, each member of the colony contributing their share.
So, B-Day it is. For the sake of simplicity and my need for planning, it’s every sixth weekday, give or take the equivalent of a snow day or a holiday. Nerdy-bio trivia fact included:
Sealed honey found in King Tut’s tomb is still edible, despite lying beneath the desert sands for over 2,000 years. Amazing!
“They’ve been awfully quiet.”
“I noticed that too.”
Two sentences, and the little nagging worrier that sits on my shoulder sat up a little straighter. The past two weeks had been rainy and muggy; not exactly bee-checking weather. It had been 2 weeks before that since I’d checked this first-season hive. I rested in the fact that they were, indeed, new. New queen, freshly painted boxes, drawn comb. They didn’t need me meddling.
So I was totally unprepared for what I saw.
Empty geometric perfection. No pollen or nectar stored in the neat hexagonals. Scanty brood, dead bees blanketing the bottom board. I found five queen cells near the top of the hive, the kind bees make for “practice.” Then I found a supersedure cell in the bottom box, the kind of queen cell made in emergencies. Uh-oh. The queen had died and my colony was starving, in part because I had ignored them for so long. If there was a DCF for bees, I should be cited for negligence as a beekeeping parent.
I noticed a hearty cluster of bees on one of the frames, lifted it carefully and blew on them gently to nudge some space between them. A queen!
In a panicky text to Tim, my best beekeeping buddy and honeybee guru, I confessed my negligence. “Feed them. They should be ok.” He texted back. “You’ve got a young queen and plenty of time to build up winter stores. I’ve brought a hive back from worse.” Ok, we can save this colony. And redeem myself as a beekeeper . . . just maybe.
Within 2 hours, they had a gallon of sugar water and a pollen patty to feast on. An hour later, I gave them two frames of with cappings wax oozing with honey from a recent extraction and they were already more lively.
The lesson here? Check your bees! In a recent article on a beekeeping website, the author stated it was only necessary to visit your bees about 6 times a year. Harrumph, I thought at the time. That’s way too few. But I was lured into a sense of complacency nonetheless, leaving this hive unattended and threatening its very vitality.
Check. Your. Bees. Every 10-14 days in the summer, even if they seem to be humming along. Had I seen that queen cell earlier, I would have started feeding earlier, providing the energy to help get the new queen up and running. Workers have a lot of work to do before winter. Time is essential.
Check. Your. Bees. They are at once fragile and supremely resilient. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, vigilantly, for this mighty little hive.
In my last Honeybee Biology post, it was all about the Queen. Today the Workers are in the spotlight.
“How are your bees?” My dad asked this question one pre-spring Sunday afternoon. “Checking on them tomorrow. I’ve got the sugar-water ready. I’m going in to find the queen. They just may have made it through the winter!” “You’re giving them sugar-water? Junk food?” My brother asked with one raised eyebrow. “Why don’t you just feed them Skittles? Then you’d have rainbow honey.” I sighed. “Ha, ha. They need energy because nothing’s blooming yet. I’m giving them pollen patties too, for protein, to raise brood.” I couldn’t help acting like a big sister know-it-all. “Pollen patties? Where the heck do you get them?” Up went the eyebrow again. “Beekeeping supply catalogues. I have a bunch in my freezer. Like burgers.” I painted the picture, pollen patties stacked like burgers, frozen and ready for the grill. “In your freezer, next to your food? “ He was incredulous. “It’s human grade stuff,” I countered.He shook his head. “You won’t find pollen patties next to the steaks in my freezer. And sugar goes in my coffee, by the way.”
In the early spring, my sugar goes in water for the workers.
Workers are the nonfertile females in the colony, the result of a combination of biology and chemistry. For the first two or three days, worker larvae are fed royal jelly, just like the queen. On day three, the worker bees tending to this next generation of brood begin feeding them a different mixture of protein and carbohydrates. Though it is still a rich mixture, it’s not royal jelly and these larvae don’t fully develop the reproductive organs and pheromone producing glands needed for royalty. It’s a good thing, too. Imagine so many queens trying to rule the colony. Nothing would get done. Workers spend about ½ day longer as a larva and about 5 days longer in their chrysalis than a queen, for a total of 21 days before hatching.
Workers live up to their name: they work. In addition to feeding, protecting, and cleaning the queen, they also forage for nectar and pollen, guide their fellow workers to the best sources of food, produce food for the brood, produce beeswax and propolis, ready the colony for such complex behaviors as swarming and winter clustering, and defend the hive. Only workers can sting, armed with venom glands and barbed stingers. But this is small consolation since approximately 95% of the colony is made up of workers.
Honeybee society exists in a dynamic equilibrium; that is, the roles of its members change over the seasons even as they basically remain the same. Most workers live only 5 to 6 weeks during the foraging season and during this time, their role changes as they mature. Upon hatching, a worker’s role is to eat, just like any newborn. Older workers take care of her until she can roam about the hive to find pollen and honey stores on her own. She isn’t waited on for long. Within a day, she takes on her first job, that of cleaning debris from hatched cells so that others can polish the sides with propolis, readying them for the next batch of brood. A few days into her young life, she is able to make royal jelly as glands in her head begin to mature. She can now feed the queen and any of the young brood less than three days old. She also grooms the queen, which helps to circulate queen pheromone throughout the colony. Circulating queen pheromone lets the colony know the queen’s status and ultimate health of the colony.
So far, our worker hasn’t left the colony, even though air currents may be swirling the sweet scent of lavender into the hive entrance. The next step for her, as she ventures as far as the front porch, is to remove nectar and pollen loads from returning foragers. At this point, she begins to use her wings but not for foraging just yet. She needs to spend some time guarding the hive, now that the glands and muscles of her sting mechanism have matured. Guards are the sentries at the hive entrance, inspecting any incoming bees, making sure they smell right. Those that don’t have the hive’s distinctive odor are driven off or killed. Yellow jackets, spiders, mice, raccoons, skunks and, of course, big lumbering beekeepers that move too fast are challenged too.
As our worker matures, she begins venturing out of the hive, foraging for nectar and pollen to contribute to the colony. Even foragers have different roles. Scout bees seek out flowering patches where nectar is abundant. Their job is complex because they need to learn not only where the good stashes are, they also need to learn what time of day certain flowers are open. The scout bees are the dancers. Returning to the hive, they perform a series of steps for the forgers, telling them where good sources of food can be found in relation to the sun’s angle and direction from the hive. On a sunny summer day, it’s the foragers that are the steady stream of bees entering and exiting the hive. Watch for a few minutes and it becomes clear that there is a definite flight pattern.
In any search engine, begin to type “how many bees . . .” or “miles to make a pound of honey” and you’ll get a number of options, all with some pretty incredible statistics. It takes 12 bees their entire lives to make a teaspoon of honey for the beekeeper to harvest. Honeybees must tap 1,500 flowers to gather a load of pollen and two million flowers to make one pound of honey. And they can fly up to 55,000 collective miles, mostly within a one-mile radius of the hive, for that one pound. Foraging is probably the most labor-intensive job a worker can have and it takes its toll. Wings are frayed, flight muscles break down, protective body hairs fall out. Most foragers die in the field from exhaustion, their last load of nectar seeping back into the earth where it becomes an unintended parcel of food for some other creature.
By late fall, the queen has laid her last set of eggs. These will become the workers that winter over, living much longer than six weeks. The role of these workers is to keep the queen alive and well, clustering around her, beating their wings to generate heat, and feeding her from the stores of honey gathered through the spring and summer. They are also the first to venture out of the hive in March when skunk cabbage, dandelions and red maples bloom. The pollen and nectar they bring back to the hive stimulates the queen to begin laying eggs again and the colony will swell from its winter numbers of about 10,000 to over 40,000 by June. Once again, 95% of these are workers, but this is when the drones earn their keep in the colony. We’ll find out how in my next Bee Biology post.
“Is there a king?” my niece Megan asked? Her eyes were wide and innocent, like she believed it was still possible that fairy tales came true. The Disney movie Frozen aside, most queens in fairy tales do come with kings. Or some part of us wants them to, perhaps. You know, happily ever after. But, no, I had to tell her, queen bees don’t have king bee husbands. They are the sole ruler of their queendom.
Semantics and anthropomorphism aside, a queen in a honeybee colony is the sole royal member and is treated as such by her subjects. But she is not the most important. Sure, without the queen, the colony would perish, but the same can be said of the workers and the drones. The more I work with my colonies, the more I compare them to a brain with its various parts. Every honeybee contributes to the colony as a whole in some important way, just as each neuron in our brains contributes to its overall function and survival. Laying eggs, raising brood, grooming and housekeeping, foraging for pollen and nectar, manufacturing propolis and honey, readying for the change in seasons – all these activities are carried out by individuals just as our cerebrum and cerebellum, our optic nerves and pituitary gland all carry out specific functions. Without any one of these structures, we wouldn’t be fully functioning and, indeed, we may not even survive.
In an average sized colony of bees at the peak of nectar flow in June, there is 1 queen, about 39,500 female workers, and about 499 male drones. It sounds pretty lopsided, but if we step away from our human idea of a well-functioning society and consider the natural world they live in, a colony is an amazing adaptation for survival.
Each member of the colony has its unique biological makeup, and makes distinctive contributions to the colony. Even so, in this description there are exceptions and extraordinary circumstances. If we think of human society, there are many deviations from the norm here too, many of which are successful functioning units.
Of course, there’s The Queen. The one and only. In the bees’ world, nature is the religion of choice, though worship isn’t really an apt description. The workers don’t really sing praises to the queen or treat her like royalty. Genetically, she is one of their sisters, an equal. From their point of view, they are working toward survival of the colony, as much as the queen is by laying eggs, as much as the drones are by mating with queens. So the queen isn’t really the one and only. She is only one of the constituents of a healthy hive. No more or less important than workers and drones. This is not to say that I don’t do my happy queen dance when I see her as I pull out frames loaded with bees. There’s something about rarity, or one, that give us pause – a sun-dog on a cloudy bright afternoon, or a tiny sand dollar washed up intact at the tideline. What really makes her different as a queen is pure biology.
An egg designated to be a queen is fed a diet of royal jelly. Exclusively. This alone is enough to make her a queen. The worker bees, all females, tend to this egg with special care as it develops into a larva and then an adult over 16 days. Eggs
mature in the perfectly crafted hexagonal cells that make up honeycomb. In a hive, some of these cells are used for honey and other food products (nectar and pollen). Some are used for brood, the developing bees as they mature from egg to adult. Worker brood fits neatly into these little hexagonals; drone brood spills just a little over the top like a glass of water filled to the brim and held by surface tension. But the queen cell is much bigger. In fact, it is often constructed not in the comb itself but suspended from the edges of the frame. In cases where it is within the honeycomb, workers will clear an area of honeycomb, making room for the royal chamber. Queens need this extra space; they’re bigger.
Workers don’t make queens willy-nilly. If there is a healthy queen in residence, her pheromones suppress the workers’ urge to build queen cells and raise an heir to the throne. But if the queen is ailing, has left the colony with a swarm, or has died, the lack of pheromones is a strong distress signal to the colony. The workers build the queen cell but a queen, who may no longer be present, must provide the egg. I can only imagine the intricate level of planning and communication among these insects. Workers must construct a queen cell. They must then move a developing egg that is less than 3 days old from the masses of worker brood and place it in this cell. Why? Because up until three days of age, all developing eggs are fed royal jelly by the workers. After day 3, only developing queens are fed royal jelly exclusively. Imagine. Of the hundreds of similar looking eggs nestled in hexagons on a frame, workers will choose only the ones that will have potential to be queen; that is, only those eggs less than 3 days old that can continue to have only royal jelly.
Queen bees are easy to find walking about a frame because they have long tapered abdomens, stubby wings in comparison, and are bigger than workers or drones. The other characteristic that sets her apart from the other members of the colony is that she is the only one that can lay eggs under normal conditions. And even then, her egg-laying is seasonal.
Up until she has mated, the queen is treated just like any other bee in the colony. To establish her reign, one of the first things a newly hatched queen must do is set out on a mating flight. This is probably the single most risky thing that influences a colony’s survival. The queen will fly up to a mile to a drone congregating area, usually an open field nearby, where drones from surrounding colonies congregate to mate with queens. Here, hovering about 20 feet in mid-air, she’ll mate with an average of a dozen drones, who give up their lives in the name of fertilization. They are from different colonies; the more varied the better, ensuring genetic diversity. This is all guided by pheromones, those minute molecules released by animals that trigger specific behaviors. On the way there, she might get snatched out of the air by a hungry flicker, or a sudden rush of wind may send her skidding into a pond. A beeline into an oncoming car would be deadly. But if she makes it and successfully mates with the drones, then makes the return journey safely, the hive breathes a figurative sigh of relief, taking in the complex pheromones signaling her new status. This “queen substance,” as is it often referred to, is picked up by the workers as they feed and groom her distributing it throughout the hive and linking all the individuals together like nerve fibers in our brains. The queen, who now becomes flightless, walks among the honeycomb depositing fertilized eggs during the warm months. By late fall, she has laid her last eggs, the ones that will hatch to become the workers that winter over. During this cold stretch of days, the queen can be found in the center of a cluster of workers, as they continuously beat their wings to generate heat deep in the hive.
By March, it seems we’re all hungry for the first signs of spring. The colony seems to be waiting too, hanging suspended as a clustered clan anticipating the flurry of summer activity. They sense the changes in day length and workers start cleaning house when they can fly on warmish days. The queen prepares to lay eggs, starting this year’s brood nest that will hatch and provide the lady power through the summer to collect nectar and pollen, manufacture honey and propolis, and raise new generations of workers and drones.
The events occurring inside a chrysalis are nothing short of violent from a cellular point of view. Imagine your body as you know it, a larva, fat and juicy, happy to eat all day. Now imagine stuffing yourself into a tomb and allowing (yes, allowing) enzymes driven by hormones to dissolve these body parts. Your insides turn into a liquid aggregation of cells. And ever so slowly, the transformation begins. Legs and wings form. Mouthparts are designed for sipping nectar. Your tomb, which also protects you from predators and holds all those soupy insides together, begins to soften; your colors begin to show through its pearlescent shell. A split, an unzipping of sorts and you are free. Emerging as a soggy heap of crumpled wings, you are vulnerable and exposed to the outside world. But ever so slowly, those wings dry and enlarge, life coursing through them, and you become that delicate butterfly or that industrious honey bee that even the most hardened of souls stops for a moment to gaze at.
Oh, that the transformations of humans should be so easy. We can blame it on hormones. We can say we are hanging on by our fingernails. We can say we feel trapped by the very things that also keep us feeling safe. But transformations, or the opportunity for them, are universal and inevitable. I tend to write about transformation, the kind that doesn’t change us as much physically as soulfully. Oh, we might get a few more gray hairs and a few wrinkles as the soul learns to fly but most of it is internal, inside our chrysalis. And once complete the physical self shines no matter what we look like.
Sunday, June 30. Beekeeping, Year 1. The midday sun was strong, fueling the jet stream that pumped warm air into New England. I walked outdoors to set the hose trickling on the hydrangea, big leaves listless in the heavy air. Nestling it in to dribble on the roots, I heard a loud buzzing. Bees? Well, of course, since I have two hives tucked in at the edge of the woods. But all that buzzing? Were the hives fighting? After all each was essentially its own country, complete with queen and loyal subjects. The two hives never held summits, traded goods and services, or even argued amongst themselves, unless resources were scarce, and June is not a month of scarcity. But this buzzing sounded insistent. I looked around at eye level for signs of war. Nothing.
Then I turned my gaze upward to see a mass of bees the size of a basketball hugging a branch 50 feet in the air. Hey wait! You’re not supposed to swarm, my young colony! What are you doing up there? Come back down here this instant! It was an amazing, dismaying sight. The queen had abdicated her throne, taking about half of her loyal subjects and some honey with her, leaving the rest leaderless. Leaving her former colony leaderless isn’t entirely true. The swarming process is complex and the colony had begun raising a new queen before the reigning queen even flew out the door. I consulted my dog-eared tome on beekeeping, The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum. A good book to have, by the way. Nowhere did it describe the feeling of dismay that a beekeeper feels when a young queen strikes out on her own just two and a half months into her reign. It does say, however, that a swarm can be caught and set up in a new hive. This gives me hope. But it also says that unless one has access to a bucket truck, this is almost an impossibility if the swarm is that high. It says to let it go. It’s almost like watching your kid run away, bandana on a stick carrying all her worldly possessions perched on her shoulder.
So, what happens in a swarm anyway?
For all their seeming chaos, swarms are carefully planned and timed. Swarming is natural colony reproduction, similar to any maturation process in nature. Bear cubs, fox kits, and fledgling songbirds all leave the nest as they grow and begin to bump elbows, moving out to establish a territory and raise future generations. The main difference with honey bees is that these departing bees take mom with them.
As any good mom provides for her brood, however, she also takes care of the ones she leaves behind. Planning begins weeks before the exodus, driven by the queen herself. She stops laying eggs and slims down, which allows her to fly, something she hasn’t done since her mating flight. The last eggs she lays as queen of this colony are moved to queen cells, built by the workers. These queen cells are much bigger and easily seen at the outside edges of the frames. Here, eggs are fed exclusively royal jelly and nurtured into potential queens . It takes 16 days for queen eggs to develop to maturity.
Meanwhile, other workers consume vast amounts of honey for their trip. Just before these queens hatch, the original queen and the bees that have been designated the adventurers exit the colony in a great buzzing rush, and gather on a nearby surface, with the queen safely in the middle of this mass of bees. And they wait. For up to 48 hours, scouts explore the area for potential nest sites. At some point, consensus is reached and the swarm takes off for its new home, looking more like a comet than a ball now, a graceful tail of bees bringing up the rear.
Back at the original colony the new queens emerge. Any more than one queen is always one too many. The first queen to emerge will kill the others and begin her reign, taking some time to mature, fly out on her mating venture, and then begin egg-laying. Three weeks after a swarm, the colony is back to humming in the key of B.
This is a natural process, though beekeepers like to manage it mostly because they don’t like losing half their bees on a regular basis. Here are some tips to keep your bees happy homebodies.
• Make sure the colony always has enough room to grow. This means adding space to their home. Early. The queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day. That’s a lot of kids filling up those frames. Give them room! And though spring the most likely time for swarms, it can happen anytime in the growing season, and later is usually riskier for the hive because they don’t have as much time to rebuild honey stores for the winter months. Bees always move up, so as the top hive boxes become filled with honey and brood, set another box on top to give them some breathing room. This is also where they will put excess honey, honey that may be yours at season’s end.
• Check often for evidence of queen cells, every 10-14 days or so. You’ll find these larger cells along the bottom of the
frames, about the size (and appearance) of a half a peanut in its shell. You might even be able to see the queen larvae if the timing is right. Active queen cells can be removed, interrupting this chain of events.
• Split your colony. Making a split is essentially controlled swarming managed by beekeepers. The main difference here is that the original queen stays with colony and the new colony is given a new queen. As beekeepers, we like things tidy and organized so this is done on the beekeeper’s schedule, not the queen’s schedule.
Look soon for a post on how to split a hive.
It took two days for the swarm up in the trees to come to agreement on where they would make their new home. They took off in a buzzing rush, queen safely tucked in the middle, most likely for a hollow in a tree somewhere in the woods. All I could do was watch and wish them well.
Why Do Bees is here to help you get from Point A (fear of the stinger) to Point B (a sweet honey harvest).
We’ll walk you through the seasons of beekeeping and explore the amazing things these social insects do.
Join the adventure! It’s part art, part science, and a touch of magic!
But no mystery.