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.

I'm mystified.

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.


Thomas said...

What a drama you have going on in that hive! It's downright Shakespearean. Let us know how it resolves itself.

LindaT said...

Hi Lisa, Hives swarm after they have capped a swarm cell on the bottom of the frame. What you are seeing are called "queen cups" and are the makings of a swarm cell but if there's not larvae in the queen cup(they make these and keep them around in case they need to make a queen cell), then you probably don't need to worry. If they make between 5 and 20 queen cells on the bottom of the frame, they probably are about to swarm. Looks like a good queen, laying well, etc. Bees like to have insurance and keep queen cups around just for that. I wouldn't be in a hurry to react to the queen cups. Good pictures, BTW.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

Oh, that makes a lot of sense! I suppose we'll take a glance tomorrow to see if these cells are occupied or not.

We've been sketching each frame, in an attempt to track the goings-on in the hive. That, and taking photos. We're trying to visualize the inside of the hive both spacially and temporaly.

(And thank you, Linda, for your nice words about the photos!)

Stefaneener said...

Yes, I don't think I'd get too exercised about this. They're making that variety of comb you noted. Just keep observing.

Adam Schreiber said...

I agree with what Linda said - the bees like to keep the queen cups available just in case.

Also, in terms of the original hive that threw off the seven swarms, I recently learned that if the hive as a whole "knows" that they want multiple swarms, the workers will prevent the newly emerged queens from killing the other queens or destroying the other queen cells. Pretty amazing. The more I learn the more incredible these creatures are.

BTW, I'm also a blogging urban beekeeper. Have a look -

Good luck and keep us posted -

TaylorM said...

I think that all makes a lot of sense, and I also think that - and this is just conjecture - perhaps if they just came from an actively swarming (and multiply swarming!) hive, then maybe they are in swarm/queen producing mode, and haven't quite got the idea that it's ok to settle in just yet. I think what Linda said is pretty useful, and the presence of queen cups in and of themselves does not necessarily mean that they are about to be producing that many queens - but it might. You never know. I guess the idea of whether to save or get rid of these queens (if there are larvae) is up to you. I, personally, hate getting rid of drones, etc. and find it gross. But if this is indeed a super-swarming bunch of bees, keep in mind that you will be possibly producing bees, with the new queens, that have a swarming tendency, if that is indeed what you are seeing. Not that it's a bad thing. Just something to be aware. But also, like people have said, the best is to just observe and respond. Which, of course, is what you are already good at. :) Yay for seeing happy, productive bees! Now I'll have to go check in on mine... :-)

Anonymous said...

No advice...just a big "Wow!" for your spectacular photos! Mesmerizing.

Curbstone Valley Farm said...

Great post Lisa. We don't have bees yet, so I'm no help, but learning a lot from your posts!

camissonia said...

I'm really intrigued by your posts on beekeeping (it's an art & a science) and your photos are quite remarkable in their detail. Gives me a much greater appreciation for these cute (yes, I admit it - they are kinda cute in their own special way), industrious little guys. Will stay tuned for the outcome.

Christine said...

Queen cups and bee tongues. How delightful!

Anonymous said...

We have raccoons around here. I wonder if they would tear into that at night for a taste of honey?

Urban Dirt Girl said...

I'm afraid I'm no help but love getting updates and the continued education on your bees. The photos are amazing.

Northwoods Baby said...

Do bees move eggs/larvae, then? Or will they force the current queen to lay in the queen cup if need be? I thought that where they were laid is where they developed. I had two supersedure cells in my hive today, with larvae in them, with an empty upper deep on my hive. My queen should be young (new hive this spring), but if they're making these cells I can only assume they want a new queen. I hope Linda is still reading this thread and can offer advice.


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