Raising honey bees is rewarding and interesting. It doesn’t take much to get set up and begin a backyard beekeeping venture. And novice apiarists soon learn that raising honey bees is a lifelong experience of learning. Honey bees have been cultivated domestically for centuries. There are loads of historical records, scientific data, anecdotal journals and annals of beekeeping organizations to provide reading material into infinity. If you follow a beekeeping blog, every day will be an interesting post on a new subject. Much like this one.
Backyard beekeeping involves the management of a bee colony that has been established to live in a man-made hive. Once a starter colony bee order has arrived, how does a beekeeper go about getting the little critters to cooperate in setting up shop within the designated housing? The key lies within the queen.
The bees are completely dependent on the queen and their world centers around her. They will faithfully follow her wherever she goes. She is the only one who lays eggs so she is the only guarantor of life continuing within the hive.
Throughout the queen’s egg-laying years (her lifespan is only a couple of years), she emits an assortment of pheromones. These pheromones communicate her desires and strength to the rest of the hive. In backyard beekeeping lingo, the queen’s pheromones are called “queen substance”. One job of “queen substance” is to suppress the ovaries of the female worker bees from ovulating. The queen can be the only egg producer in the hive.
In order for the queen to become laden with eggs, in her youth, soon after she emerges into all her bee glory, she makes a nuptial flight outside of the hive and mates with the male drones of the hive. She then stores millions of sperm that will be released throughout her lifetime to fertilize eggs.
A healthy queen can lay between 1,000-1,500 eggs daily throughout the spring. The hive needs to teem with a thriving bee population in order to collect enough nectar and pollen and create enough honey to see them through the winter. It is important that the queen produce female worker bees from her egg clutches. The worker bees tend to her and the young and collect the nectar and pollen that make life possible. Once the queen has been fertilized drones become unnecessary.
As the queen gets older and her sperm storage drops, her pheromone production also drops. This signals the hive that the queen’s days are numbered and a replacement needs to be prepared. If they do not prepare to replace the queen, her eggs will eventually only produce drones which will spell the death of the hive.
Thus the action of workers follows the plan of what is called “supersedure”. A few eggs among the worker cells are selected to be fed royal jelly when they hatch. The royal jelly will cause the larvae’s ovaries to develop and be fertile thus creating queens. Another route to go is for the beekeeper to be aware of the queen’s age and replace her with a newly purchased queen.
It is important to note that only one queen can rule a hive. If the hive ends up with more than one queen they will fight to the death until only one remains standing. Queens do not have barbs on their stingers thus they can sting multiple times. The process of supersedure, selecting one queen from suitable larvae, or artificial supersedure, the beekeeper replacing the queen, will ultimately result in saving the hive, assuring its future and restoring the one queen rule.
Supersedure is the preferred method of placing a new queen on the bee throne of a hive and preventing the hive from swarming. Swarming behavior most certainly will result in a loss among the bee population which could doom it to starvation in the upcoming winter. Supersedure prepares a new queen who most likely will kill the old, dying queen when she emerges. Other than a bit of regicide, it’s a relatively peaceful revolution.
Swarming is to be avoided because it results in a dangerous loss in the hive’s population as it splits into two colonies. This occurs when too many eggs are selected and prepared, creating up to a dozen of potential queens. As the old queen recognizes her rivals are maturing, she may leave the hive with a large contingent of faithful worker bees following her. The swarm will scout out territory, finding a suitable location for a new hive. Within the swarm may be a virgin queen or two, ready to replace the old one once the new hive is established.
When raising honey bees it is important to know your queen’s age. Successful backyard beekeeping also means knowing how to visually tell the difference between a drone and worker bee so you know when your queen is aging out and producing drones. That way you can replace her and avoid a devastating population loss in your hive.