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    Queen Bee Facts to Keep Your Hive Healthy

    Authored by Jodi Torpey

    When Beth Conrey received a call from a concerned beekeeper whose bees wouldn’t stop stinging his wife, she asked him one question: “How’s your queen?”

    Queens play a critical role in the health of hives. “If a hive is unhappy, generally speaking, there’s a problem with the queen,” says Beth, a seasoned beekeeper with 20 years of experience managing about 100 honeybee hives. She owns a honey business called Bee Squared Apiaries in Berthoud, Colorado, and has served as president of the Western Apicultural Society and the Colorado State Beekeepers Association, among others.

    Beth’s assumption was spot on: After speaking more with the gentleman, she came to the conclusion that his hive likely didn’t have a queen at all, causing the bees to behave erratically.

    “In the absence of a queen, the colony knows it’s dead and there’s a lot of angst in the hive,” Beth says.

    Fortunately, beekeepers don’t have to wait until their bees go on a stinging frenzy to learn there’s a problem with their queen. Understanding how queens are crowned, what exactly they do in the colony, and how to spot them can help you care for your hive.

    Understanding queen bee biology

    Like a family unit, bee colonies are complex social organizations. There may be many female worker bees and male drones, but there’s only one queen in each hive. “She’s the only fertile female in the hive and without her, the colony dies,” Beth says.

    “The queen has one job and that’s to lay eggs. The queen mates only once in her life and lays up to 1,500 eggs a day for the duration of her life.”

    All fertilized eggs have the potential to become a queen or a worker bee; unfertilized eggs become drones. Bees take just 16 days to go from the egg stage to larvae to pupa and finally queen.

    Watch the National Geographic’s time-lapse video of bees hatching to get a sense of this impressive development.

    This is where things can get a little heated, reminding us just how competitive the natural world can be. If there are multiple queen cells in the colony, the first to emerge will seek out the others and destroy them with her smooth, reusable stinger.

    A few days later, she leaves the hive on the mating flight that will transform her from a virgin queen to a “mated, laying queen,” as the PennState Extension explains.


    A queen becomes an egg-laying machine

    During the queen’s mating flight, she mates with multiple drones from other colonies, stores their sperm, and returns to her hive. 

    The mating process transforms her body to prepare for egg laying. Her abdomen grows to hold the ovaries that will produce an unlimited—yes, unlimited—number of fertilized eggs over her lifetime, about one or two years.

    After mating, the queen begins producing pheromones she uses to communicate with her hive. She’ll “tell” her colony not to rear a new queen, and call for her retinue, or group of worker bees, to begin taking care of her.

    To learn more about this communication, watch BBC’s video, “How Honeybees Perform Queen Duets.”

    How to care for your colony’s queen

    One of a beekeeper’s most important responsibilities is to recognize when there’s a problem with the colony, Beth says, and that often centers around the queen. “It’s essential to know whether you have a present and properly functioning queen.”

    Spot Your Queen: Finding the queen can be hard for beginner beekeepers, so “practice, practice, practice,” Beth says. She can typically be found on open brood, when the baby bees are in the larvae stage. Open brood looks like little white pearls filling each hexagon-shaped cell.

    “Queens are about 1/3 inch longer than other bees and they move differently. She trundles,” Beth says. You can also spot the queen by the retinue of worker bees following, feeding, and cleaning her.

    Is Your Hive Queenright? When a colony is “queenright,” it means there’s a queen and she’s laying eggs properly. “The queen lays eggs like a drill press,” Beth explains. “There’s one egg perfectly centered in each cell and the cells are contiguous.”

    How a new queen is crowned

    Beekeepers can replace a queen when they choose, but there are two times when the colony will decide on its own it needs a new queen: a swarm and a supersedure.

    A Swarm: Swarms are a natural way for colonies to split off and propagate. A large group of honeybees leaves an established colony and flies off to start a new colony. The swarm takes the queen, leaving the colony with replacement queen cells.

    Watch this video to see what a swarm looks like.

    To determine whether a swarm is imminent, give your hive a thorough once-over: “In preparation to swarm, [bees will] prepare queen cells located at the bottom of a frame to hatch a new queen,” Beth says.

    In spring and early summer, beekeepers should inspect their hives at least once a week, on the same day of the week, to look for queen cells. Keep track of the number of days after first seeing queen cells, then split the hive before it swarms. Splitting allows beekeepers to be able to take a single colony and a single queen and turn it into two colonies with two queens, rather than lose half of their original colony. Queen cells are about 1 inch long and peanut-shaped with a rough texture.

    “The swarm happens on day eight, so be there on day seven or earlier if you don’t want to lose half of your hive,” Beth advises.

    A Supersedure: Think of this like a coup. A supersedure is when the colony recognizes the queen is aging from her failing pheromones and the bees determine it’s time to build new queen cells for a replacement.

    “Sometimes the Queen Mother hovers around and then a new queen comes in and takes over the job,” Beth says. “They usually let the old queen die, but occasionally a battle between the two can happen, but it’s not as often as people think.”

    This video captures a supersedure.

    Armed with the knowledge of what exactly honeybee queens do and how to tell if your hive is queenright, you’re well on your way to raising a happy, healthy hive.