Honey Bees and The Mighty Queen

Raising honey bees for beginners

The evolution of the honey bees

Honey bees and flowers first evolved together 60 million years ago, during the cretaceous period. This interdependence of insect and plant has shaped the evolutionary history of bees:

  • Honey bees most likely evolved from a type of mud wasp. The shift from a carnivorous diet to one based on pollen and nectar is what separated bees from their ancestors.
  • Most bee species are solitary. Though some species, including honeybees and many stingless bees, are eusocial. They live in a colony consisting of a single queen and many workers, with division of labor and overlapping generations caring for the brood.
  • Honey bees most likely evolved in the Middle East, from here they spread to Asia, Africa and Europe. There are no native honeybees in Australia or the Americas.
  • Different species of bees emerged due to Ice Ages, the changing sea levels resulted in populations being cut off from each other for long periods of time so they evolved independently.
  • Apis mellifera – the European (or ‘Western’) honeybee, is the most commonly used species in beekeeping. They spread from Africa to Europe about 2000 years ago and colonized the continent.
  • The queen is central to the workings of a honey bee colony. The queen’s genes and physiology dictate the behavior and temperament of the workers. The characteristics of a colony can be changed by replacing the queen
  • The queen mates with multiple males. Up to 20 or 30 drones will mate with a queen, and their genes will also influence the character of the colony.
  • The size of a brood cell determines whether the queen lays a female or a male, before laying an egg, she measures the cell with her legs. If it’s a smaller cell, she will fertilize the egg, so that it will develop into a female worker. When the queen encounters a larger drone cell, she lays the egg without adding sperm for fertilization.
  • The workers build queen cells when it is time to replace the queen. The newly hatched queen will fight with other virgin queens, but not with her mother. She will then leave the hive to mate with multiple drones before returning.
  • “Piping” is when newly hatched queens vibrate their wings to emit a beeping sound. This will cause other developing or recently hatched queens to respond. The new queen will kill her sisters developing in their queen cells, or fight to the death with any that have hatched.
  • When she leaves the colony for her nuptial flight, the virgin queen will visit a drone congregation area and mate with roughly 30 males in succession. She will store the sperm in a bag near her stinger, called the spermatheca.
  • Drone congregation areas can be used by biologists to estimate the number of colonies in an area – this is done by catching drones and analyzing their DNA.
honey bees
We all love honey bees

How and why to find the queen?

You won’t always need to find the queen when inspecting your hive – often checking for eggs is sufficient. However, there are times when it is necessary to be able to identify her:

  • Wear your beesuit when inspecting the hive and use the smoker to help keep the bees calm.

    NoteUsing too much smoke can make the queen go into hiding, so try not to overdo it.

  • Work gently when opening up the hive – check that queen is not on any piece of the hive that you remove.

  • The queen will often be found where the bees are most densely clustered, although the brood nest is usually in the center of the hive, this is not always the case.
  • Gently remove a frame from the edge of the box and check it for the queen,  it’s unlikely that she will be on an edge frame, but it’s always worth taking a look. When you are putting the frame down, be sure to rest it against the hive just in case the queen is on it and you missed her – this way she should be able to walk straight back into the hive.
  • Work your way towards the center of the brood nest, quickly check each frame for the queen. She is most likely to be on a frame with fresh eggs and empty brood cells.
  • Take extra care when using foundationless frames – the comb may be fragile, and can easily break when flipped or held at the wrong angle.
  • The queen has a longer body than the workers –  her wings only go halfway down the length of her abdomen.
  • She has a bald and shiny back/thorax, and very long legs. Her legs are often splayed out at her sides and are usually lighter in color than the workers’ legs.
  • Some beekeepers mark their queens with a spot of color on the back. This can help to identify the queen, but it may also prevent you from getting used to naturally distinguishing the queen from the workers.

A specific color is often used to represent the year that the queen was born. Queens don’t usually live longer than 5 years, so the color code restarts in the sixth year:

    • White or grey for a year ending in 1 or 6;
    • Yellow for a year ending in 2 or 7;
    • Red for a year ending in 3 or 8;
    • Green for a year ending in 4 or 9;
    • Blue for a year ending in 5 or zero.

You can remember the order of the color sequence by using the mnemonic “Will You Raise Good Bees”.

queen bee

  • The queen usually moves faster than other bees and will leave a wake of bees as she moves across the comb.
  • If the queen stops, her attendants may surround her. This can create a flower-like pattern with the queen in the center.

Reasons to find the queen:

    • If you want to re-queen your colony you need to be able to find the queen. You must remove the original queen before adding a new one to the hive.
    • When making a split it’s essential to know which part of the split contains the queen, so that you can add a new queen to the correct part of the split.
    • If you find swarm cups in the hive. Finding the queen will let you know that the colony has not yet swarmed, and you may prevent them from swarming by removing the cups. If you remove the cups after the queen has left, your colony will be left queenless.
    • When doing a swarm removal or rescue it’s important to be able to identify the queen to ensure that you have transferred her to the new hive.
    • Queen-spotting is fun! And it’s nice to be able to show her to people.

Understanding your queen and honey bees will further enhance your beekeeping experience. However, always remember to practice safe beekeeping.

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Originally posted 2020-08-18 10:00:00.


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