Sunday, April 20, 2014

Q is for Queen Bee

Two queen cells on the face of a comb.
Cord Campbell, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Last weekend, Eric and I spent about 2 hours inspecting our hives on the first warm day where we had the time to do so. We knew three hives had survived the winter, but we wanted to make sure that each had enough room and that the queens were alive and laying eggs.

When we tore down the dead green hive, it was quite clear that the hive had lost its queen--the bees had made many queen cells, which are distinctive. I didn't get any pictures of the cells we found, but this photo from Gord Campbell shows how the cells hang from the comb to accommodate the queen as she develops--she's much larger than worker or drone bees.  The green hive had dozens of these cells.

Big Brown as a swarm, in a photo
sent to us by Nancy.
It was in her backyard.
In a working hive, sometimes it's hard to spot the queen. She's one bee out of thousands, and most queens don't like to be disturbed. It's usually enough proof for us to find eggs because eggs hatch in 3 days or less. But, we really wanted to find each queen and see with our own eyes that she was alive and well.

We started with the "big brown" hive, which is farthest from the house. The brown hive actually started out as a feral swarm we caught in 2012 (that's going to be my S post in a couple of days!), and it has been a prolific hive. It tends to boom early in the spring and wants to reproduce. In fact, we saw that happening last spring, and took out the queen cells, which resulted in Little Brown, our 2nd hive.

When we opened up Big Brown, we saw they had already started to fill the top box with nectar, proving again that they are quite the active starters. We had to go down to the 2nd box from the bottom before we found the queen. Unlike most queens, she didn't try to run and hide. She just
kept laying eggs and working on the frame, completely unperturbed that she was being held 4 feet off the ground so the paparazzi could take her picture. Once we found her, we closed up the hive, and moved to Little Brown, next door

The queen is actually the bee with the dark thorax, which looks like a big black dot in the lower third of the picture. She's much larger than the other bees, but you wouldn't know that from this picture because she has her abdomen in a cell, and is laying an egg. If you look in the right, center, you'll see a bee that looks like it is ALL eyes. That's a drone, the only male in the hive. He's larger than the workers, but he doesn't sting. 
Before we got into Little Brown, I went in to try to find a fresh camera battery. Of course, I have no idea where the charger is, so I decided to limp the camera along (I succeeded). When I came out, Eric was talking to a guy who had stopped when he saw Eric in his bee jacket. Rolando wants to keep bees and had lots of questions. Since we have a couple of extra jackets, we invited him to put one on and watch the rest of the inspections. I might be the professional teacher in the family, but Eric certainly loves to teach people about bees!

Little Brown wasn't as quick to start storing nectar as her mother hive, but she was working. We ended up finding the queen in about the same location as we had in Big Brown. Little Brown's queen wasn't as unflappable; she stopped laying, but didn't immediately head for cover. She let me take some pictures of her, and then we closed up that hive, too.
Little Brown's queen walked around and let me capture her next to her daughters. There's most of a drone in the lower right, which gives a pretty good idea of the relative sizes of queen, worker, and drone.
The white hive, which started as a nucleus hive we purchased from Pat Haskell of the Bee Keepers of Northern Virginia club, has been with us since 2012, too. She and her husband Jim raise bees out in Luray, at their mountain house, and teach beekeeping classes. The green hive, which didn't make it through the winter, was also a nuc hive we bought at the same time. If you had asked me which I thought wouldn't make it, I would have said the white hive. But they are still plugging along.

The hive hadn't really filled much of the 4th box we had added a week earlier, but they were clearly about to have a population boom. We found lots of capped brood inside in the 3rd box. The queen was located down in box two, and ran around a bit. These have always been a "runny" hive--they don't like to sit still when we inspect them. I still managed to catch her for a couple of quick pictures before we closed up the last hive.
The White Hive queen has different coloration than the others. I love how varied these bees are.

We're going to watch Big Brown pretty closely, and will probably add another box to give them room to store more nectar. Now that the weather has warmed up, all three hives are making the most of the emerging flowers. I caught them working the purple deadnettle and dandelions this week. I hope this bodes well for the honey harvest this year.

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