Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

Queen Introduction: Part 4, The Effects of Attendant Bees: Their Presence and Absence in the “Same” Colony

- September 1, 2020 - Wyatt Mangum - (excerpt)

attendant bees

In this series of queen introduction articles, the candy release method counts down the time to release the queen. With my queen cages mounted on the glass of the observation hives in the bee house, I can even see the bees tunneling their way through the candy to the queen.

Figure 1 shows a closeup of the candy end of the cage at the screen level. To the lower left in the brown wooden access hole, a bee removes white candy. She opens a tunnel before her. As an aside, the bees on the cage have managed to move the wax paper covering the candy. A corner of the wax paper is visible in the upper right corner under the screen. Within tongue reach, the bees remove the candy, speeding up the release time too much. In case you have wondered about the wax paper over the candy, here is its critical function. The wax paper keeps the candy clock running at the correct speed. In the results presented below, keep in mind the candy clock is running in the background, counting down the time until the bees can directly contact the queen, whether they accept her or not.

Experiments 1 and 2 from the previous articles shared a common feature. The treatment, that is, the presence or absence of attendant bees, was applied to the entire colony. So a colony either had attendant bees or not in the introduction cage. One colony could not have both. Yes, I know that is a rather obvious fact. In this article on queen introduction, we will break that obvious fact, which will lead to the results of a new experiment. And we will find ourselves in a new realm of queen introduction, with an experiment so novel no one has conducted it.

First though, permit me to briefly introduce a concept far from beekeeping, although one that can be fundamentally important in learning new concepts, namely, an Einstein thought experiment. In his theoretical physics research, Albert Einstein would think up physical situations that were extremely difficult or impossible to actually conduct. Then he worked out the consequences of these situations or at least saw what new questions these thought experiments would motivate.

Here is an Einstein thought experiment motivated from the queen introduction setup of Experiments 1 and 2. In reality, the thought experiment is impossible to do, but easy to think about. First, let’s arbitrarily pick out one of the hives from the prior experiments. By random chance, the colony received a queen cage without attendant bees. The number of ballers on the screen of the queen cage decreased to zero faster than an exponential decay, resulting in a very fast queen acceptance.

Now here is the thought experiment: What if we could go back in time to just before the queen was given to the colony? So the colony back in time would begin exactly the same. The colony would begin with the same number of bees in their same beginning physiological states. Colony demographics would begin the same, on and on –– all beginning the same as before. Moreover, the new queen would begin the same too, reverting to her initial physiological state. Other things like the queen cage and candy would begin the same. Include here the subtle too, like having the queen cage begin with the same initial scent, a mix from all prior causal scent contaminations from being near other bees, queens, hands holding the cage, and the rest. Of course, the weather conditions and microenvironment in and around the hive would begin the same too. In the beginning, in of all that almost unimaginable exact beginning, there is only one difference –– six attendant bees are with the queen.

Although a bit subtle, the second queen introduction is exotically unique, because we know how the colony reacted for the first queen introduction, without attendant bees. Now here is the question from the beekeeper’s perspective.

At the beginning of the second queen introduction, the beekeeper knows the bees accepted the queen quickly without attendants. Does that indicate how the next queen introduction will proceed with attendants?

Experiments 1 and 2 demonstrated that the time until balling ceased was longer when attendants were present. Should we expect a “slow” exponential decay to be the counterpart to a rapid acceptance (without attendants)? Attendants were associated with chronic balling and reversion. Could these intense aggression patterns ever be the counterparts to a rapid acceptance (without attendants)?

While we cannot rerun time for real, tinkering with its infinite variables (probably for the best), to generate two identical queen introductions, except for the attendant bee status, our experimental unit (the colony) possesses a most remarkable feature unlike laboratory rats and mice.

A honey bee colony –– is divisible, and it continues to live and function as smaller colonies, certainly for queen introduction. Therefore we could have two queen introductions from carefully dividing a parent colony to produce a pair of colonies. Dividing several parent colonies would produce the corresponding replicate pairs.

I consider dividing the parent colonies to produce equal pairs extremely critical. Numerous unknown factors divided unequally might influence the queen introductions differently in the two colonies, thus breaking their paired status. My working assumption is that numerous components of the colony could affect the time until acceptance, and also how the number of ballers (B) fluctuates over time, producing the aggression patterns we observed in the previous article.

Colony components like the total number of bees, honey, stored pollen, and total area of comb were obvious to equalize. So was the brood, with care. Sealed (pupal) brood would be the source of new bees in the near term. The best I could do was to balance the sealed brood by its area (no uncapping to ascertain age structure) up to the amounts I found on the combs (no comb cutting).

Bee larvae produce brood pheromones, some documented to affect adult worker bees. Those chemical signals should be balanced in the pair of colonies. Although the larval area is less of a brood nest component, particularly during a dearth, I balanced it or at least made sure  ….