Royalty and Regicide in Rosemary Hive

It’s been a busy few weeks here at PeaceThyme. We just got back from a week in Georgia – one of our adult sons just graduated from Army basic training at Ft. Benning, so we went down to see the ceremony and to visit. Bonus points, we got to see one of the Daughters-in-Law and our ludicrously cute grandson in the bargain.

Before we went, we did go in and check out the hives. I was a bit concerned about Rosemary. Back when the bee inspector was here, he pointed out a queen cell on one of the frames. So we wanted to see if they had superseded yet, and how that was going for them.

Well, at that time – two weeks ago – it seemed to be going okay. We saw a lot of open brood, but no capped brood. That means that the queen had been laying for about a week, but had NOT been laying before that. We also saw the queen. Or at least, we saw a queen.

And we saw several queen cells, all opened. So it looked to us as though she had hatched out, mated, and was just beginning to do her baby-laying job.

Queen cell viewed from bottom - you can see that it's opened and there is no larva inside it.
Queen cell viewed from bottom – you can see that it’s opened and there is no larva inside it.
Yet another. We saw a total of four on this inspection.
Yet another. We saw a total of four queen cups on this inspection.

So – that was two weeks ago. We also added another box to Rosemary hive. So today I wanted to go in and see if they were drawing into that third box yet.

They were. And they have lots of nectar and honey stored, which is great. Not much pollen. But a lot of queens. Seriously. A lot. More royalty than a British tabloid. Including a regicide-in-progress.

First, we took the top box off and saw this on the frames of the middle box:

We initially saw a much bigger pile o' bees than this, but the hubs blew on them and smoked them to clear out the traffic so we could see what was going on - and see that there was a queen in the middle of the pile.
We initially saw a much bigger pile o’ bees than this, but the hubs blew on them and smoked them to clear out the traffic so we could see what was going on – and see that there was a queen in the middle of the pile. So we didn’t get a picture of the huge pile of bees that this started with. I’d estimate at least 30 workers were in the dogpile at the beginning.

That is a queen being “balled.” It’s a form of execution used for invading wasps/hornets, old or poorly performing queens, or newly introduced stranger queens that the hive does not accept. A pile of bees huddles around the queen, so closely that she overheats and dies. The pictures don’t do it justice – it was much more dramatic than this. There was initially about four times as many worker bees piled around her, before we cleared some of them out to see her exiled Highness.

They've given up, for now, and left her be - but I'm betting they came back to finish the job just as soon as I closed up the hive and stopped messing with them.
They’ve given up, for now, and left her be – but I’m betting they came back to finish the job just as soon as I closed up the hive and stopped messing with them.

Then, I started pulling frames out of that same middle box, and on the second frame I pulled we saw her:

Walking over her now capped brood, looking for the spot to lay her next egg.
Walking over her now capped brood, looking for the spot to lay her next egg.

And then, we went to pull off the middle box – and the hubs spotted a queen on the outside of the hive. Just walking around on the box, alone. Now, this may well have been the one whose execution we interrupted. That’s my best guess. But who knows. The hubs didn’t get a picture of her, because his hands were full with catching her and putting her back into the hive.

Then, in the bottom box … yet another.

 See her?
See her?

The queen in the bottom box was on the opposite side of the broodnest from the one upstairs. I don’t fully understand what is happening in this hive, but here are the possibilities as I understand them:

  1. They could be preparing to swarm. One healthy, accepted queen could be just hanging out, waiting for some unknown-to-humans signal to fly away with half of the workers in the colony. This seems unlikely to me, for a few reasons:
    1. It would be really unusual, although not unheard of, for a newly installed package to be strong enough to swarm after only three months.
    2. This was by far the weakest hive starting off – this is the one where half the colony froze to death the first night, and they just recently started getting caught up to Thyme, population-wise.
    3. In a swarming situation, the old queen keeps laying eggs until the new one is ready to hatch, and leaves right before her replacement hatches. So, at least according to one of the Master beekeepers in my local club, in a swarm situation there would not be two (or more!) queens in the hive.
    4. They have plenty of room. There are at least ten frames, some in the middle and some on the top box, that are either empty or only about 1/4 drawn out. Swarming usually happens when they feel crowded.
  2. They tried to supersede the old queen, but the new queen was not well-mated or not laying well (by whatever criteria bees judge these things) so they raised up another queen to replace her.
  3. They created several supersedure cells, and all of the emerging queens got well mated – and now either the bees will choose the best/healthiest and kill off the others, or the new queens will find each other and fight. That’s not really supposed to happen – the way the books describe it, whichever queen emerged and mated first should have killed off the others before they got that far. But the bees don’t read those books.

So either way, aside from having way too many queens (which is almost certainly a temporary situation) the hives look healthy and productive.

If you’re interested, here is some more information from Walt Wright about how bee colonies replace their queens via supersedure and/or swarming.

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