Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Queen Competition

Adam and I went to check on bees the other day, and we found interesting things. Here he is with the 5 hives. Each hive started on April 2 with a queen and about 10,000 bees.
Here's a little comb where you can see the old comb that he gave them to start with (inner circle), and the new comb they'd added to it (outer circle), in just a few days. Interesting, huh? He was able to start each hive with several frames of old comb from last year's bees, so that gave these bees a leg up. They could begin immediately to store sugar water, nectar and pollen, and the queens could begin laying quickly.
Now here's a bee lesson for you. This is a close-up of some dry honeycomb. Look at the darker cells. You're actually looking through the cells on one side of the comb, and through a different plane of cells on the other side. They make the comb that way, with cells on either side. Anyway, if you look carefully, you can see see a little "peace" symbol, in the middle of each cell. If you turned this frame of comb over, and looked through the other side, you'd see a little "y" in each cell.
This is how Adam can tell which way the frame of comb is supposed to be placed, in the hive. The bees are picky -- there's a right way and a wrong way. You can't just remove a frame of comb and bees from their hive, gaze at it, and stick it back in, however you please.
Here's a frame of pretty new comb, with lots of bees, busy at work. They are making drone comb. Drone bees (male bees for mating purposes only) are larger bees, so their nursery cells must be larger too. The drones born in a hive cannot mate with their own queen, however; they must go elsewhere.
Here's some of the surprising and sad stuff we found. One hive had a pile of dead bees at the entrance, or gate. When Adam opened the hive, there were many dead bees in the bottom, including the hive queen.
See? There were some live bees crawling around inside, but basically this hive was empty and dead. This was disturbing.
Another hive also had some dead bees, and some activity, but Adam told me that there were NO bees inside that hive -- they'd all left and gone elsewhere.
He could tell from the weight of the hives that the bees from this hive had simply left and gone next door to a different hive, with a stronger queen -- a queen with stronger pheromones. When bees are trying to have baby bees, it's all about the queen with the strongest pheromones!
Adam wasn't too worried about this hive movement. It's fairly normal, and he didn't really "lose" the bees in this hive; they just moved. Later, he can split the heavy hive where they moved to, and force them to make a new queen, and he'll not be any worse off.
The first dead hive, though, did concern him, so he inquired online at some of his beekeeper forums. They told him that that queen was probably also weak, and many of her bees left as well. Adam agreed with this, because he'd noticed that hive box was light-weight, and he'd switched places b/t it and another, heavier hive. (As the forager bees return at the end of the day, they return to a location, and if they bring food with them, they're admitted.) In this way, he'd hoped to strengthen this light-weight box. But the queen was too weak. Many bees left. And the house-bees who were left to care for the comb were not enough to maintain the temperature and keep the hive cool enough. Thus, they died from heat. That was the consensus on the beekeeper forums.
This is good news because it means Adam didn't lose many bees after all. And if these dead bees met their demise from heat, and not from disease, then he can use the hive boxes again, without fear of harming bees who'll live there later. Diseased hive boxes must be burnt.
Evidently, when one buys new hives, there's a period of time when the bees are not as strongly attached to their queens and hives as they are later, and bees will move around, looking for the best queen. My mother says Julia should write a story about the activities of bees in a hive. Sounds like an interesting plot already!

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