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Honey Bee Biology

An Interesting Case of Queen Acceptance

- September 1, 2017 - Wyatt A Mangum - (excerpt)

With my bee work, occasionally I find a colony whose condition is difficult to diagnose. While uniting that colony to others is a constant temptation, I would miss opportunities to see interesting bee behavior.

The colony for this article began as a shook-swarm with an older queen (from another colony). The colony was in an eight-frame hive, made up in mid May. The bees accepted the queen, and she began laying eggs. I was feeding the colony syrup and pollen substitute along with six other frame hives in that cohort for a project later in the summer. After a couple of weeks, I noticed this colony’s flight had diminished (see Figure 1).

An inspection revealed drone pupal brood in worker cells, as indicated by the drone’s bullet-shaped cap on the cells, rather than the flat cap of worker brood. Larval brood was scattered in worker cells, which would be male too. Oddly though, no eggs were present. With plenty of brood nest bees and the feeding to support wax production, resources abounded for egg production.

Finding no eggs was a bit striking, but could have occurred if the failing queen had just died about five days before. No old queen cells were present from a supersedure. This hive was in an out-apiary. To keep the colony from becoming too weak and being destroyed by small hive beetles, I gave the colony a frame of sealed brood with larval brood for the bees to build queen cells. I checked the colony for a queen, but found none. The bees were defensive making a virgin queen search difficult. In addition, the bees did not behave as queenless bees sometimes do by mass scent fanning and wandering off the combs.

The main spring nectar flow was mostly over, but I continued feeding this group of frame hive colonies so they would continue comb construction. I had found another hive with sealed queen cells for swarming, a response to the feeding. Three queen cells were on a piece of burr comb. Their wax caps had been chewed away by the bees, exposing the brown fibrous cocoons the queens spun as larvae. This behavior is normal and it indicates the queen will emerge soon.

Since it was becoming dark, I gave the burr comb with all three queen cells to the supposedly queenless colony. Even though I had searched through the hive a couple of times, I still had a bad feeling. All my intuition said there was a queen in that hive, but repeated searching of only seven frames found no queen, although the bees were difficult to handle and required smoke before removing each frame.

Back at the hive the next afternoon told the answer. The ends of all three queen cells were open. Superficially it appeared all three queens emerged. At least the colony had a queen now. Case closed. I thought that. For a fraction of a second.

Those three holes had more to tell, but one had to look at their details. To appreciate that, here is some background information on queen emergence. For years, I have seen queens emerge from their cells. Recently, I have taken close-up videos seeing just how a queen stabs her mandibles (jaws) through the cocoon and cuts her way free. Remember, the bees have already removed the wax part of the cap. All that remains of the cap is the queen’s cocoon, which she cuts out as a neat clean circle, like a little can-opener. That perfection is the signature of queen emergence. (Rarely I have seen an emergence hole with a ragged edge. One time was when the bees had left some wax on the cell cap during an emergency queen replacement.)

When bees or a queen destroy a queen cell, there are two ways they can enter the cell. The most common way is to chew a hole in the side of the queen cell, usually above where the cocoon ends (see Figure 2). The queen’s cocoon does not enclose her completely, as it does for workers and drones. The queen’s cocoon covers the cap end of the cell and extends only part way up the sides of the cell. There is no cocoon behind the queen. That would prevent her from feeding on the surplus of royal jelly after the bees cap her cell, and during the time the queen larva spins her cocoon.

Another way to destroy a queen cell, which I rarely see, is when a hole has been chewed through the cap end of the cell, right through the cocoon. Queen cells destroyed through the cap have an irregular hole with a frayed edge, not the precise circular hole made by an emerging queen.

All three queen cells were destroyed in this irregular manner (see Figure 3). Depending on the amount of cell removal, the hole could be just at the cap end or larger as the bees chew away the walls of the cell, dismantling the cell. One cell was in that condition. The other two had …