Saturday, May 29, 2010
Our busy bees, or "what the hell do we do now?"
Today, we inspected the Gloriana hive. We were a little clumsy, and tore open some capped honeycomb. You can see the ripped open comb on the upper right section of the frame.
(It seems to me that the comb in the lower right is larger than the comb in the middle. I think that it contains drone larvae. More on that, later.)
The bees didn't seem to mind the destruction of their honeycomb. They got right to work, slurping up the spilled honey. I love that you can see bee tongues in this photo. I also love the beautiful clear droplet of honey at the bottom of the picture.
Thankfully we didn't do any damage to the larval bees. What you're seeing in this photo are several of the life stages of the European Honeybee. After the queen lays an egg, it hatches as a tiny grub-like larva. The larva lives inside an open wax cell, and is fed special food by the worker bees. When it has grown nice and big and fat, and is ready to pupate, the workers apply a wax seal to its cell. While inside the capped cell, the larva completely transforms into the pupa, which will develop into an actual bee.
The flat-topped cells on the left side of this photo contain female pupae. The larger domed cells on the left side of the frame are developing into drones. Drones are born from unfertilized eggs. After the queen bee has her "nuptial flight" and mates with as many drones as possible, she returns to her hive, where she will spend the rest of her life laying eggs. She stores the sperm from her mates inside her body, and can control whether the eggs she lays are fertilized or not. The laying queen will regulate the ratio of drones and workers throughout the year.
Drones are larger than the female workers, and so the cells in which they develop must be larger, as well. Honeycomb is not a homogeneous sheet of identical hexagons. The bees actually build it to suit their needs.
Do you see how the bees don't build their comb wall-to-wall, but leave themselves little shortcuts along the edges of their comb?
If you look very closely at the cells above the open spaces in the comb, you'll see cells that contain eggs. Eggs are teeny-tiny. They're white, and the shape of a grain of rice, and are almost imperceptible.
Even when we fail to spot our queen, we know she is laying well. We see the eggs, and the different sizes of larvae. And we see the drone and worker pupae, developing in their capped cells. If the queen runs out of stored sperm, she'll only be able to lay unfertilized drone eggs. If this were to happen, this might mean the death of the colony.
However, we have a nice young queen, who was presumably born this spring.
Our queen came from what's called an after-swarm. Usually when a colony swarms, the old queen any many of her colony fly off, leaving the honey stores and developing brood behind. The colony prepares for this by raising a number of new queens in special "swarm cells." Typically what happens is that the first young queen emerges from her cell, and then she systematically kills all her royal sisters.
If the first-born queen were to let the other young queens live, they would quickly vamoose from the colony with an entourage of mature bees. The telephone pole that threw off "our" swarm produced a total of seven swarms. The first swarm was caught by a vigilant neighbor, who had been watching the pole in hopes of catching a swarm. I caught the second swarm, and five more followed in quick succession.
We are almost certain that our queen was a newly hatch young queen who had skee-daddled as soon as she realized that she wasn't first in line to the throne. Because of this, Robb and I figured that we had a year before we had to worry about our colony producing its own swarms.
Until we saw this.
The distinctive "peanut" of a swarm cell, hanging on the bottom of a frame. And not just one swarm cell.
Three developing queens.
Oh great! What do we do now?
It looks as if this is a cell that has not yet been sealed. I believe that a regular round aperture means that the bees are still working. If the cell had already hatched out a young queen, I think that it would have a more jagged opening, from where she chewed out.
Of course, of all the thoughts that went racing through my mind when I saw the swarm cells, "check to see if there's larvae inside" wasn't one of them. I was flustered, and that was stupid.
The thing is, our hive doesn't seem ripe for swarming. It's not over-crowded with so much honey that there's no room for brood-rearing. Quite the contrary. The bees have an entire box of brand-new comb that hasn't been used for anything, yet.
Now, many beekeepers would advocate cutting out and crushing the swarm cells. But that's antithetical to our approach to beekeeping. Young queens are an asset, and not something to be destroyed.
I think that what we're going to do is to keep a very close eye on these cells, and as soon as they get capped, we're going to move the frames that they're on into new, empty hive boxes, and start "nucleus" colonies. I certainly don't want more than two hives in my backyard, not in our very first year. But I figure there are plenty of would be beekeepers who would love to have a split from our beautiful, productive gentle colony.
I also will be the first to admit that I'm unprepared for this. I'm hoping that some experienced beekeepers will chime in and offer their advice. I'd very much like to split this colony, and share, and I've taken a class on this very subject. I just didn't think I'd be applying this information right away. I'm not even sure where the notes from that class are.
Experienced beekeepers! Please leave me a comment, and help me out.