“The Queen Bee” was the subject of a fascinating talk by Graeme Sharpe, the honey bee advisor for the whole of Scotland. Graeme, with very many beekeeping years under his belt and 120 hives to take care of is based at Auchincruive Agricultural College in Ayrshire. In summer he runs courses for beekeepers that are very well attended.
The Queen lives for 3 to 5 years, but with age she becomes less prolific with her egg laying. At her peak she could lay 1500 to 2000 per day. She emits a pheromone called ODA which holds the colony together and inhibits worker ovaries from developing and also the construction of Queen cells in the hive.
There are several types of Queen cells that may be constructed throughout the year. Supercedure cells are made when the colony wants a new queen, swarm cells are made when the colony wants to divide and increase and emergency Queen cells are made when the colony has become hopelessly queenless.. If the latter happens the ovaries of workers develop and they start to lay eggs. Sometimes there are several eggs in one cell and these would grow into drones as workers are infertile. Each type of Queen cell should be recognised by the beekeeper and he should also recognise a good quality one by its wrinkled, waxy surface and size. A smooth surface may indicate a poorly fed Queen.
The Queen measures the size of the cell with her front legs before deciding whether to lay a worker or a drone egg but it is the feeding regime that dictates whether that female egg develops into a worker or a Queen. Both types of egg are fed Royal Jelly for 3 days. After that, the diet changes for the worker to a less rich brood food and only about 150 feeds daily as opposed to a continuous diet of Royal Jelly throughout life and 1500 feeds daily for the Queen. This new queen needs 16 days to emerge and 2 or 3 days to get ready for her first maiden flight.
Trailing her pheromones she sets off for a drone congregation area where several thousand boys will be waiting to court her. Only 10 or 12 of the strongest will make it and pay the ultimate price for the effort as their genital organs detach inside the Queen. Drone congregation areas can be 2 or3 miles distant and consist of many thousands drones from all around the area making a good diversification of the gene pool. The weather plays an important part of the mating ritual. Good flying conditions – not too windy, a nice sheltered valley and a temperature around 20*C. If by any chance the weather is consistently poor a queen may not get mated for 2 or 3 weeks or not at all. In the last scenario, she will become “stale” and turn into a drone laying queen.
An interesting event inside the hive is the sound that virgin queens make before and after emerging. A high pitched intermittent tooting or piping. The old queen makes a quacking noise, a deeper tone. These noises signal to queens the presence of others and a battle ensues the first emerging Queen killing off the others until only one remains.
Lastly, the desirability of traits of a queen’s offspring are: Good temper, non- following, calm on the comb, good honey gatherers, non-swarming and locally adapted bees.
The next meeting in Glenluce Bowling Club is on the 27th March at 7pm, when Ian Craig past president of the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association will talk on Swarm control and queen Rearing. Newcomers and members all welcome.