What do Inigo Montoya and I have in common?

I hate waiting.

But waiting is most of what I have to do between now and time to look for eggs in my new split. Waiting… and dwelling — homesteading, even — on all the things that could go wrong.

So let’s talk about that! That will be fun.

In my defense, I haven’t posted as much as I wanted to lately, so this is making up for lost time. And although I’ve reached a point where I need to start keeping a summary list of posts I’ve made so I don’t repeat myself, I did previously promise a more in-depth explanation of bee reproduction. This seems like a good time for that, since parts of this are very important in creating a new colony using the walk-away split method.

For starters, I’ve made my own version of the honey bee life cycle tables that practically every bee website or book contains. (Not breaking new ground here, check!) That’s okay. There are many like it, but this one is mine:

Look, I know the egg symbol is clipart of bird eggs. I did the best I could.

(Like pretty much all other aspects of beekeeping, I should point out that no two sources agree exactly on the numbers here, which tend to vary by a half-day to two days, depending on who you ask, the phase of the moon, and whether or not your socks match today. I can’t blame the peculiarities of beekeepers this time. Biology is messy. We’re not the boss of Biology. It does what it wants. And anybody who’s waited for a baby anything to come into the world knows that due dates are merely suggestions.)

So, review time: Bees undergo the classic stages of insect metamorphosis we learned (and inevitably got all out of order on test day) in grade school: Egg, larva, pupa, adult. While every bee begins its life with 3-3.5 days in the egg, the caste of bee (wow, how classist!) determines how long it takes to emerge as an adult. Queens develop the quickest, followed by workers. Drones take considerably longer to develop, especially while they’re sealed away as pupae. Drone cells are pretty big; maybe they’ve got a widescreen TV stashed in there…?

To bring this back around to my walk-away split, when workers realize they are queenless (usually a day or less after losing their queen), they will begin raising “emergency queens.” This is a fantastic, dramatic term that makes me feel just a little bit guilty, as I have literally manufactured an emergency for one of my hives. The nurse bees — young workers whose job it is to tend the brood — choose some of the very youngest worker larvae (marked on the graphic above with a gold star), and give each of those larvae a chance to pull a tiny, tiny sword from a stone, thus proving that she has the right to be crowned queen of all Engl– wait, no.

Actually, I’m not sure what makes the bees choose some larvae over others, except the requirement that they must be no more than a day or two old. But however they choose, nurse bees will continue feeding these larvae royal jelly after all the peasant larvae get switched over to a diet of pollen and honey. And when all the other larvae get sealed into their normal cells to pupate, the Chosen Queen Larvae (yes, that’s multiple potential queens) will get sealed into much larger queen cells, which look like something straight out of Alien. I don’t yet have any pictures of emergency queen cells, but here’s a picture you have seen before of a queen cell from last spring:

WHY are you trying to make a new queen, ladies? You have one already!

Take a look back at that timetable again. From the day a fertilized egg is laid, a new queen takes about 16 days to emerge from her cell as an adult. But she’s still a newborn! She’s not ready to leave the hive immediately. For the next 4-5 days while she matures fully, she’s typically termed a “virgin queen” …and she is one bloodthirsty baby. She’ll kill any of her sister-queens that she can, either by slaying them while they slumber in their pupae, or by wandering the honeycomb sounding her battle-cry and looking for other newly-emerged queens like herself. Unfortunately for her dignity, this sounds a lot like she’s playing the world’s tiniest kazoo. So that’s adorable…. but if two virgin queens meet in a hive, they usually fight to the death. The victor will go on her mating flight a minimum of four days after she hatches — some sources say as long as five or six days later.

Here’s where it gets weird: All those drones that have been hatching all spring in beehives? They have airborne frat houses. I can only presume there are also airborne keggers. Airborne pledge drives. Airborne hazing…

That’s really the best explanation I have. We don’t know how the bees choose these locations, but we know there are drone congregation areas where the males tend to hang out, flying around and waiting for queens to show up so they can get their shot at genetic fame. (In the event, fame is pretty gruesome from the drone’s point of view: You know that thing where worker bees that sting you leave their stinger in the skin, but in pulling away, they leave behind bits of their internal organs? Let’s just say this dubious mechanism was not corrected when it comes to a drone’s sex organs. The fulfillment of a drone’s life is not victory or death, but victory and death.) I don’t think we are quite sure why drones choose certain places to congregate — converging air currents, maybe? — but this makes encountering enough drones for a successful mating flight easier on the queen. Ideally, she’ll mate with multiple drones — I’ve encountered estimates ranging from 8 to 12 — so it’s good that she doesn’t have to fly around randomly hoping to encounter a flying bee in an aerial haystack. If all goes well, she’ll encounter lots of drones from different hives, and return home with her prize: Genetic variation!

After her mating flight, the queen still needs at least two or three days before she starts laying eggs. The timespans I’ve used for maturation and mating in my table are what beekeepers typically consider a minimum for maturation and mating: It can take between eight and 19 days post-emergence for a new queen to begin producing eggs. What this means is that, while all this has been happening, all the old queen’s other offspring have probably already emerged — with the possible exception of a few drones, if the queen is really quick off the mark. In all likelihood, any delays means there’ll be a multi-day break in the brood cycle. In other words, for a handful of days there will be no non-adult bees in the new colony. This delays honey production because workers are dying all the time — in the spring, their lifespan is limited to weeks. But this break can actually be a good thing in the long run, as any pests or pathogens that spread from larva to larva won’t have a host for a little while.

I’ve inflicted a lot of math on you in this post. For those of you who don’t like math, I sincerely apologize.

What this all means for my newly split hive is this: I need to wait at least 21 days before I can expect to see any new eggs appear. It’s not unreasonable to expect that I might not see any eggs for a week or two after that, depending on how quickly things are moving along.

Waiting. UGHHHHHHHH.

If I don’t see eggs or find a new queen preparing to start laying at about 35 days…. then that’s when I’ll start to worry that something has gone wrong. Possible dire outcomes:

  1. The hive population begins steadily declining. Cranky, frenetic workers start storing honey everywhere because they want to be doing something. I beg a queen off my mentor or give them a new frame of brood from my queenright hive, and we try again.
  2. The workers — diligent, dedicated ladies who are DOING THEIR BEST — start laying eggs. I flounder and panic.

This second situation is both plausible and — by all accounts — difficult to solve. (Of course, when I have a stomachache Google thinks I’m dying, so I try not to believe everything I read on the internet.) Worker bees can lay eggs, but because they don’t go on mating flights, all they can produce are drones. They are also averse to math (they refused to even proofread this post, how rude!) — so I’ll be able to tell if I end up with a laying worker hive pretty quickly, because each cell will contain multiple eggs, and all of them will mature into drone cells.

As an academic exercise I’m just a tiny bit intrigued by this outcome. But practically speaking, a laying worker hive is trouble with a capital T (and that rhymes with P, and that stands for pool). I honestly haven’t researched what to do to correct it. The predominant recommendation is, “Don’t bother trying, that hive was nice while it lasted.”

So that’s what’s up with The Once and Future King Queen. I’m largely powerless to influence the outcome in the queenless hive right now. The best I can do is trust in biology, sit on my hands, egregiously mark up my fancy Erin Condren calendar, and count the days until I can check for eggs on April 20th.

But you can bet that, starting April 12th, I will be in my bee yard every day, listening with all my might for the sound of a tiny kazoo.

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