The queen arrived in a separate cage, like we mentioned in our last post. She is kept in her cage by a small marshmallow plug. The bees need a few days to eat through the marshmallow, and in the meanwhile, they are getting used to her smell, and recognize her as queen. At the end of a week, the queen should have been freed for a few days, as well as beginning to lay eggs. If she has started to lay eggs, we know that she is alive, the bees have accepted her, and that she is a fertile queen.
Now for a little detour into some bee biology, and why the queen is so important to a healthy hive. The queen lays all of the eggs in the hive that will develop into every kind of bee, worker drone and even another queen. (In fact the queen can lay so many eggs in a day, the eggs she produces will out weight her own body!) We received our queen from a bee breeder, who will artificially inseminate the queen. In nature, a so-called virgin queen will take a mating flight (the only time in her life that she will leave the hive), and mate with 10 -15 male bees (drones) from other hives, that will last her her whole life.
Back in the hive, the queen will lay eggs based on the needs of the hive. A queen can choose to lay a fertilized egg (which will have a complete genetic code, from both a male and female parent) that will develop into a female worker bee, who will perform many functions in the hive, from foraging, to cleaning, and taking care of the young. If the queen decides not to fertilize the egg, it will become a male bee, or a drone (This means that a drone will only have half of a genetic code, what the science folks call a “haploid clone”) Drones are used solely for mating with other queens, and are responsible for carrying on the hives genetic line. What all this means is that a without a fertilized queen who can produce worker bees the hive can’t grow or reproduce. This means that making sure your queen is doing her job the most crucial thing you have to do as a beekeeper.
Alright, now with all the biology aside, we can get back to our hive, and learn what we were looking at. Our primary function with this inspection is to find brood. Brood is collective term for the early stages of insect life. Bees go through four stages: egg, larva, pupa, then adult . The eggs are tiny white flecks at the bottom of a wax cell, and will hatch into larva, white grub type creatures. The larva will be feed royal jelly, which is secreted from glands on the foreheads of adult bees. (If an egg is feed a high concentration of royal jelly, the larva will pupate into a queen bee). When the larvae are old enough, they will pupate, and nurse bees will cover the eggs with wax while they are in their pupae stage. Pupae look like adult bees, but are white, and have no exoskeleton. When they are adult bees, they will eat their way out and become nurse or house bees themselves.
So, with checking for brood as our goal, we set about looking in the hive. From the outside, it looks like the girls are doing well. The bees are taking progressively longer flights from the exit on their hives. These are orientations flights that the bees take so they can find their way back to the hive once they start foraging. The first thing that we encounter is the sugar syrup and artificial pollen we left them, which they have not been eating. That is ok, since we provided them with honey from other hives, and we’d rather have them eat that in the hive.
Getting further into the hive, most of the bees are crawling around on the frames that are on the north side of the box. Not a big deal, ultimately, but for the most part we want the bees centered in the box, which helps create a better brood nest, mimicking the natural structure of a hive. This issue is easily corrected by simply reordering the frames, so the ones they are crawling on are closer to the middle.
We looked at each of the 10 frames that are in the brood box that is the first part of our hive. They aren’t building any new wax yet, which is to be expected because the weather has been so cold.
And, we have success! We found capped brood (bees that are in their pupa stage), as well as larva. This means that even though we didn’t see the queen herself, we know she is in there, and doing what she does best. However, the brood is not all adjacent to each other, and so is not forming a contiguous nest. This could be the warning sign a bad laying pattern, which could mean weak genetics, disease, or low fertility. It is too early to make any of those judgments now. The splotchy patter could be a result of weather variation, and the hive cluster being too small to keep the temperature in the brood nest consistent enough for laying eggs.
If there is a problem with the queen, there are options, such as replacing the queen, or just letting hive die off over the winter, and harvesting as much honey as they can. Good thing we don’t have to think about that yet, and can wait to see what else the bees have to tell us!
And perhaps the most exciting news of all is, my bees are friendly and well behaved! They let us move through the hive, and just contentedly go about their business without any fuss. Perfect beginner hive!