I think I have mentioned the hymneopteran tendency toward illiteracy before. Neither bees nor the other insects in their order — sawflies, wasps, and ants — are very good with the written word. (It is rumored that wasps can read, but they only ever pick up those aggravating book club novels.) However, humor aside, new research suggests that it may be possible to teach bees the concept of zero*, which is pretty mind-blowing, so I can’t throw stones. Some of us are just better at math, right?
The thing is, this means that bees don’t always do what the textbook says they are supposed to do. For example: I was told that the queen always moves up into the top box. If you give her space and there isn’t a solid layer of honey (a “honey cap”) above her, she will move up and start laying in whatever empty cells she finds. This is one of the basic principles that guides colony management if you choose not to use a queen excluder to keep her in the lower boxes.
When I opened my hive on June 28th, though, this is what I found in the top box:
The queen hasn’t touched this frame since I moved it into the top box. At that time, it was full of brood. When the brood hatched, the workers started storing nectar instead. The capped cells at the top of the frame are all full of mature honey, with nectar and some pollen stored below. This was the first frame I looked at, and my guess based on what I saw was that the queen wasn’t located in the top box.
Sure enough, I found her still in the bottom box, ignoring the instructions written for her in all the biology books. It looks like she has begun laying in a much more consistent brood pattern than when I last saw her, too – good job, Your Majesty! There are still some empty cells, but a lot fewer than ten days previous.
- My bees are not smart, but they like to make honey.
- The Backyard Bee Literacy Program is not taking off the way I hoped it would.
- “Spelling Bee” is a dirty lie.
- Don’t believe everything you read in books.
But we knew #4 already, didn’t we? For every biological rule, there is an exception that proves it. Consider the platypus: An egg-laying, venomous mammal. Remember all the “sterile” hybrid animals and plants that have produced offspring – including the much-publicized wholphin, which represents the offspring of a cross between animals we’ve classified not just as two different species, but two different genera. One captive wholphin, Kekaimalu, has given birth to three calves so far. But sure… definitely, 100% sterile. Please insert your favorite Jeff Goldblum quote here, and let’s agree to never, ever recreate dinosaurs, all right?
So. The queen was still in the bottom box, and there were a few workers storing honey in the top box. The bees weren’t pulling much comb in the top box, but had made a little more progress down below. This is what partially drawn foundation looks like, by the way:
Although I don’t really have a standard for comparison, I believe this is pretty slow going on the comb construction. And to be honest, I’m not terribly surprised by that. My bees are at a bit of a disadvantage: Comb production takes a lot of energy, and because I’m a new beekeeper, they started with frames full of foundation and no comb at all. (This is one big advantage of starting with a nuclear hive instead of a package of bees, the way I did.) Then — in retrospect — I exacerbated the problem by not releasing the queen from the queen cage when she hadn’t gotten out on her own by Day Three, because it meant that the next time I went in, I had to remove a large chunk of floating comb hanging from the queen cage, along with all the eggs that comb contained. That both set back new bee production, and means I took away the first fruits of their comb-building labor. By the time brood finally started to hatch, some of the oldest of the original worker cohort were already dying: Workers only live five to six weeks in the spring and summer. (This means that with very few exceptions, the bees in my hive right now are not the same bees I brought home in May! And yet I still talk to them as though we’ve all known each other for months…)
To make things even more complicated, workers don’t have the same job in the hive their entire lives. Young workers are the best at producing wax, and after they are 18-20 days old, their wax production begins to decline. So now that my colony’s population is finally starting to expand, and young bees are emerging, I hope start to see comb production pick up.
This seems like a good time to say something about the honey bee life cycle. Let’s ignore, for a moment, the queen (who can live for several years) and the drones – though I will try to discuss this topic in more depth later. Honey bee reproduction is fascinating even if you’re not a complete geek like me (trust me), and deserves its own
novella post. I’ve been sharing a lot of pictures of bee brood, and that’s mostly been worker brood, though on this last check, I spied a few drone cells. So let’s talk about what happens when a queen lays an egg:
First of all, the queen chooses whether to lay a fertilized egg, or an unfertilized egg. “Choice” isn’t quite the right word, though, because she’s really just following instructions: Depending on the size of the honeycomb cell, she lays an egg that will become a worker (a female bee from a fertilized egg) or a drone (a male bee from an unfertilized egg). I won’t go into too much detail here because there is a whole body of research surrounding the question of whether or not cell size make bees more or less vulnerable to pests like the varroa mite, so… I have to do some more reading before I open that can of worms. But this has two really interesting ramifications:
- If the queen lays eggs based on cell size, and the workers who build the comb control the size of the cells, then who really controls the colony…?
- Male bees have no father.
Let me say that again.
Male bees have no father.
They do have a grandfather, though – because queens develop from fertilized eggs, just like workers. The difference is not in the egg, but in how the larva is fed when it is developing. I’m putting a pin in all of this, too – but I promise I’ll come back around to it. Pretend Chris Hemsworth made an action-packed appearance in this paragraph, and think of it as a movie preview.
Honey bees go through the classic four-stage insect metamorphosis process: Egg, larva, pupa, adult. After a fertilized egg is laid, it takes about three days to hatch. Workers-to-be spend three days as larvae, after which the adult workers cap the cell over (hence the capped brood seen in many of my pictures) for the pupa stage. Developing workers spend about nine days as pupae before emerging a total of 21 days after the egg is laid. Young workers spend the first part of their lives as “house bees,” working inside the colony doing things like taking care of growing larvae and – yes – building comb. Older workers graduate from hive duty to become “field bees,” gathering nectar and pollen.
The sad conclusion to this tale is that if they don’t meet with some other dire end, worker bees literally work themselves to death. So…. ah. Let’s move on. On that cheerful note, that reminds me that about a billion pages ago, I was talking about my own colony!
During my last couple of checks, I found a supersedure cell, suggesting that my workers weren’t happy with the queen and wanted to replace her. I went looking for that cell, but there was no sign of it. The workers had disassembled it. (Having ruined my share of lego sets as a child, I can sympathize.) However, despite my queen’s excellent brood pattern, the workers still apparently really really really wanted to replace her. They wanted to replace her so badly that they built a new supersedure cell without bothering to wait for anybody to build honeycomb on the foundation first! And this one was sealed, with a pupa enclosed inside, developing into a young queen bee.
I was a lot more disturbed by this than I was by the first supersedure cell — the one I now suspect was built, but never filled. I thought the queen was doing so well! But again, the girls outnumber me, and I have to assume they know more about the queen than I do. So I closed up the colony and let them keep it.
I fretted a lot more this time, though, and had second thoughts, especially after a conversation with a friend who is an experienced beek. Maybe I should give the workers one more chance to decide their queen was productive enough to keep? One reason workers “decide” to replace their queen is a low reproductive rate, which my removal of that original slab of comb may have affected, so I didn’t want them to replace a perfectly healthy laying queen prematurely. Instead of waiting a full ten days, I went back to check on the colony seven days later. Queens develop faster than workers, so I knew very well that it might be too late.
But this time, I found my queen immediately – along with a frame of capped brood, in the top box where I expected to find her. (Maybe her reading is coming along?) I did find the supersedure cell — or rather, I found its remains: An empty cell with a big hole torn in the side. I took a picture, which I appear to have promptly lost, but the bottom line is: As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry.
One of two things happened: Either the workers destroyed the pupating larva, or the queen found the supersedure cell, tore a hole in it, and stung the pupa inside to death, leaving the workers to complete its destruction. (Queens have a barbless sting, so this doesn’t kill her the way it would kill a worker.)
I’ll admit it: I was illogically, disproportionately proud of the girls for deciding we were all on the same page about their current queen. I may have praised everybody a little too effusively than was strictly practical. But I closed up the colony–
No, wait. One other thing happened during this check: I found my first small hive beetle larva. (Actually, it may have been a wax moth larva – I admit I killed it before I thought to check – but I have seen no other signs of wax moths, so I’m choosing to believe in the lesser of the two evils.) Small hive beetles are just one nasty invasive species that wreak havoc in honey bee colonies. The larvae look a lot like inchworms – except that as they are The Enemy, they’re a lot less cute. I squished it with great prejudice.
I didn’t see any adult beetles, but I’ve been assured that they are an inevitability. On my mentor’s excellent advice, I preemptively installed hive beetle traps in my hive. These are incredibly sophisticated technological innovations that…
…okay, hive beetle traps are Swiffer pads. They’re just Swiffer pads. You cut them into strips, and stuff them into the corners of the brood box where the adult beetles congregate and will get caught in the fibers.
I guess this means I need to add “colony pests” to my list of things to discuss – along with the much-publicized and dread-inducing Colony Collapse Disorder phenomenon.
For now, however: Lopa Bee still reigns over her colony, which is slowly expanding, and I still have hopes of collecting some surplus honey in the fall. Despite the ridiculous temperatures in the southeast lately, I haven’t noticed any signs of distress in the hive. I think the slow rate of comb production is an advantage in that sense: Instead of wall-to-wall comb full of honey and brood, my hive is currently full of a lot of empty space, and relatively well-ventilated. It was so hot in May when I first installed them that I removed the bottom board immediately, leaving just a screen, and I think that has helped keep temperatures at an acceptable level.
My next colony check will be Saturday, July 14th!
*If you have University access to the article behind the paywall, the original publication is here: Howard, S. R., Avarguès-Weber, A., Garcia, J. E., Greentree, A. D., & Dyer, A. G. (2018). Numerical ordering of zero in honey bees. Science, 360(6393), 1124-1126.
If not, check out some or all of these articles!