In Part II of this series on Bees-First Beekeeping, we’ll be talking about what queen bees like. Basically, a queen bee likes to fly up into the face of the sun while dozens of lusty drones race to catch her. Queen bees like mating with many drones, and so keen is Mother Nature on helping a queen achieve this goal, she made the penises of drone bees glow like a flare: Each drone who mates with our queen leaves his penis behind after their inflight union, ensuring that other drones will have no problems seeing their target!
After a few mating flights, a queen will hold in her womb the sperm of a dozen or more drones, a veritable kettle of genetic diversity right there in her long and slender belly. It is this rich abundance of genetic material that is what has made bees so successful in the world for millions of years. Which brings us to our third Bees-First tenet:
3—We allow Queens mate naturally and with many drones so they have an expansive gene-pool. Swarming is a desirable and proven means of colony reproduction.
These topics are hot buttons in the bee world of today. An important part of beginning beekeeping is to look at the information out there, and make a preliminary choice as to what kind of beekeeping feels right and good to you. You’ll be changing your methods as you learn, finding what works best for your bees, you, and your living situation. But you have to start somewhere, and I believe there is much to be said for a kinder, gentler sort of beekeeping that puts the bees’ needs first and foremost…
In the comment section of Part I, Ron made a very good point about treatment-free beekeeping, which is the kind of beekeeping I’m proposing: If you are buying packaged bees and queens from another state, you are buying bees who will not make it in a bees-first, treatment-free apiary or yard. These bees are highly domesticated, and very different from feral bees.
Having been bred to function in high-production, heavily managed and treated systems, these bees have been robbed of their genetic ability to live wild and untreated. Domesticated animals no longer live under the dictates of Natural Selection. They live under the hand of human selection, and we select bees/animals that suit our preferences. Randy Oliver, the Scientific Beekeeper, has an excellent article on the domestication of bees HERE
For example, many beekeepers don’t appreciate bees who propolize heavily, and bees have now been selected for many years for low propolis production. This sticky stuff made primarily of resins, enzymes, and wax can glue up parts of a hive as though they’d been bonded with Super Glue. Bees, however, have a very particular need for propolis. Honeybees have little internal immune system. Propolis, its qualities and aroma, is the external immune system of the honeybee. That tantalizing scent you smell when you open a hive comes not just from nectar, but more so from propolis.
Propolis is an amazing compound. It is healing in so many ways, and is still used throughout Europe in dental clinics for its ability to kill bacteria and heal gum disease. In the U.S., it is being studied as a treatment for MRSA and many other antibiotic-resistant infections. It is also the base of the varnish Stradivarius used on his violins. Versatile, powerful propolis. What a gift from the bees! If you think about it, resins have been treasured in the healing arts for centuries. When the wise men gave Jesus three precious gifts, two of them—frankincense and myrrh—were resins, valued as highly as gold.
So, now we have bees trying to fight off varroa mites and viruses without the benefit of heaps of propolis in their hives. We have taken away their ability to craft their own medicine.
Let’s bring this discussion of domesticity back to our subject: Queens. If you buy your bees in a package, the queen bee will have been artificially inseminated by a drone or two selected for its ability to, for example, make lots of honey, be gentle, not propolize, and build up quickly in the spring. Your queen will not be related to any of the bees in the box you have purchased. That is why she will be in her own little screened container. Set loose in the box, she would be immediately killed by the worker bees who recognize her as a foreign threat. She becomes accepted only after the disheartened bees realize they have no option but this interloper.
This queen will have been created by bee sellers through a process similar the one bees use to create an emergency queen. If a hive suddenly and unexpectedly loses its queen, the bees can craft an “emergency queen” by building up a queen cell around a worker bee egg, and feeding it a diet of royal jelly only (queen food). In two weeks or so—voila—the hive will have a new virgin emergency queen. This new queen was not intended to be a queen from the start, but she will do in a pinch. This queen was laid in a worker bee cell rather than a vertical queen cell, and her start in life was in older and horizontal comb.
It seems that bees do not keep their emergency queens for long. Within a year, bees craft a vertical queen cup of fresh wax, guide the old emergency queen to it and coax her to deposit an egg there, and craft what some of us call a “royal queen”—a queen intended for royalty from the very start.
Packaged queens are made by pulling worker eggs out of their cells, and placing them in artificial queen rearing cells that mimic the vertical shape of the true queen cell. Or by putting a group of bees into a small hive with no queen, but a comb of newly laid worker eggs. The bees, realizing they are suddenly queenless, go about making new queens as quickly as they can. When these queens hatch, they are then drugged with carbon dioxide so that they can have drone sperm inserted.
Very often, this is the queen you are buying: crafted in an emergency state, mated with few drones (i.e., genetically compromised), and unrelated to her hive. Most likely, she will come from another geographical region, perhaps utterly differing in climate from your own. In the wild, this queen would not live for long. In your hive, she probably won’t, either. Back in the day, queen bees could remain fertile for 4-8 years. Now, I read that conventional beekeepers are having to replace their package queens every six months.
In a natural environment, new queens are created as a hive prepares to swarm, if the old queen’s fertility is declining (which they can ascertain by her scent) or—as we’ve already covered—when they suddenly find themselves queenless.
I’m going to ask you to step for a moment from the science of beekeeping into the mystery: There are many, many things we do not understand about bees. Could it be, for example, that there is a very specific reason why bees do not—unless they are forced through emergency—create a queen in anything but fresh, new wax? Is there a reason why she is crafted vertically from day one? Is it possible that queen bees are able to determine which egg they will excrete to create a queen from the perhaps a dozen or more genetic lines a wild-mated queen carries inside of her?
While we cannot know any of this, there is some evidence for all of it. Consider that of all the bees in the hive, the queen is longest lived, thus the one longest exposed to pathogens and pesticides, which accumulate in beeswax over time. Could this be a reason the bees craft their royal queens from fresh wax?
If we simply add a dash of humility to our beekeeping, we may admit that perhaps there is a wisdom to the way queen bees mate and live. And perhaps we ought to respect that.
As a new beekeeper you might be asking yourself where in the world you are going to find these royal queens if you find yourself in need of one. It’s easy: You will find them locally. Many small-apiary or backyard keepers raise their own queens from emergency cells, but allow their local queens to fly free and mate, ensuring her bounty of genetic diversity. You might even be able to track down queens like this from treatment-free beekeepers. I would go so far as to say this: If you cannot locate local bees or miss catching a spring swarm, put your beekeeping off until you do. Packaged bees from outside of your geographical area are THAT BAD an option. This brings us to the second aspect of bee reproduction in our third tenet: Swarming.
Swarming is considered a bad thing in conventional beekeeping and in much of backyard beekeeping as well. Many beekeepers will tell you that it is just plain stupid to lose two-thirds of your hive plus your queen in a swarm—which you will. Also, many beekeepers believe you are being a bad beekeeper if you allow your hives to swarm and terrify your neighborhood.
Swarming is a fascinating, celebratory event in the life of a bee colony. Bees don’t swarm in spring unless they have had a good winter, so a swarm represents an exuberant, successful parent hive. Bees plan their swarm event weeks in advance. Everything has to be in place: A slimmed-down queen made ready for flight, lots of brood and bees to stay behind and rekindle the hive, lots of scouts and young bees, and lots of honey and pollen. The weather has to be right. Drones have to be flying. New queen cells need to be filled and capped. Professor Thomas Seeley has written an entire, marvelous book on the subject called “Honeybee Democracy,” and it reads more like an Indiana Jones adventure than a research document.
If you’ve ever had the thrill of standing two feet in front of a hive and had a swarm pour out like honey and spill over you, and been immersed in the sound of 20,000 bees spiraling around you—like an angel choir—you have been truly blessed in this lifetime to witness one of the great miracles of nature: A superorganism rebirthing itself.
And if you have experienced such a thing, you could never imagine subduing such a force. Although we know—thanks to Seeley—exactly how a swarm prepares itself and how it seeks a new home, we can never know the deep and complex benefits of swarming for bees. We do know, also thanks to Seeley, that hives that swarm more often are healthier overall than hives whose swarming urges are suppressed by hive splitting, brood rearranging, and queen-cell destruction.
One theory as to why swarming does bees good is that swarming creates a break in brood rearing, and varroa mites can only reproduce in brood cells. The swarm will have no new brood or bees until a new home is found, combs are constructed, and the queen gets busy laying again. The hive that remains behind will need to hatch a new queen and see her successfully mated before any brood rearing begins. And from experience I can tell you that sometimes the new queen decides to wait awhile before she begins laying—sometimes up to two months. This break in the brood cycle seems to be very good for bees.
We also know that when the old queen flies out with the swarm, the sunlight rekindles her hormones and jump-starts her for another good year of laying. Think about it: The queen only sees the light of day a few times in her life. Once when she has her mating flights, and then only when her hive swarms. Otherwise, she lives in total darkness. The queen has a very special relationship with the sun. The sunlight in her eyes reawakens her and she is literally renewed in the swarming process.
Swarming bees are all of a mind to make a new home, and quickly. They are ramped up for wax production, for foraging, for propolis gathering, for nursing brood. They have with them their queen, their reason for living, and the new hive begins to hum with wholesome activity.
The bees that come to you in a box are all strangers to each other. They were literally shaken out of their hives and poured into a funnel, and from the funnel to the screened box. They are not filled up with honey reserves. They were not of a chemical/hormonal/biological mind to relocate. They are hungry, queenless, without related kin (and honeybees know their genetic kin within their hives), agitated, and homeless. These bees are like shocked, exhausted refugees. In many cases, a large portion of the box of bees is dead before they ever make it to your home and hive. Then, they have to learn to work together and to accept their strange and unwelcome queen. Can you imagine for a moment the stress put upon these bees? And can you imagine what stress does to an immune system? How can this be a good way to bee?
So let’s address the objections to swarming. We have already learned that this swarming break is good for our bees who remain behind. Although we lose our old queen and a huge mass of bees, the bee numbers can be back up in as little as a week or two. Yes, it may put a break in honey production for awhile, but if we are Bees-First beekeepers, we care most for the wellbeing of our bees. We are backyard beekeepers for goodness sakes, not commercial honey producers.
About the neighbors: Every situation is different, just as every colony of bees is different. In my own neighborhood, I have had as many as 11 swarms issue from my yard in only two months’ time, and not one neighbor even noticed. My friend Anna had 15 swarms from her yard of five hives last year. Doesn’t anyone ever look up these days? Not where I live. So I grab the neighbors and bring them to see the swarms and talk about how exciting and amazing swarming is.
Often, I end up retrieving swarming bees bare handed, like when they mass onto chain link fence or—like last summer—on the underside of a birdbath. Bees in swarm mode are usually very gentle. They have cast their fates to the wind, literally, and have little to defend. Also, they are so crammed full of honey (about three days worth in their bellies) it is hard for them to sting. When people see you lifting handfuls of gentle bees into a basket, they change—instantly and forever—their perceptions about bees and their supposed danger. Swarms are teaching moments. Big time teaching moments. Don’t waste them!
There are a couple risks for any hive that chooses to swarm. Sometimes the new queens fly out to mate and do not make it back home. Perhaps some hungry swallow put and end to her homecoming. In such a case, the hive has usually constructed up to a dozen queen cells, so they have plenty of chances for one of them to mate and return home. If they all fail, the hive will die. The bees will have no fresh eggs left to create an emergency queen. This is where you may step in with a new, naturally mated queen from a local breeder. This is something you can do that will actually help your bees. You cannot save the colony, as the queen you will introduce is unrelated to your bees, so all offspring will be of a new genetic line. Your bees will only exist long enough to raise the first brood, forage a bit, and perish. But these last working bees will leave you comb and nectar, and with a brand new, queen-right colony.
I have had colonies that were so swarm crazy, they finally swarmed themselves to death. One of my hives cast eight swarms in two months. It then took her a long time to requeen herself, but after that, she never fully came back. She perished in the autumn, but the six of the eight swarms she sent out survived. There are a host of theories about why bees would swarm again and again. I’ve read that bees in areas where there are few honeybee hives will pour out swarms as if trying to make up for the dearth of bees in the neighborhood. Personally, I believe that swarming is a time of exhilaration and jubilee and I like to imagine bees do it because it is wildly life-affirming and just plain fun.
This season I have come to deeply appreciate the importance of the queen bee in her hive. I have six hives right now that are from two different lines of bees: Three came from swarms from my friend Anna’s yard. Three came from a hollow tree a few miles away. All six of these colonies were what we call “secondary” or cast swarms. That is, these swarms came after the prime swarm of the season that would have included the original queen from the hive They were all populated with virgin queens who needed to mate after they got home to my yard. These six hives are all vastly different from each other, even though there are only two different lines of queens. Some built up incredibly quickly. One kept building wax all season and only stopped a couple weeks ago. They all have different hygienic qualities. Some toss out sick larvae, some groom each other so throughly its a wonder they end up with any body hair by the time the groomer bee has finished with them. Some will head-butt me to keep me back. Some, I can literally put my nose into their entrance. None of these colonies have shown any interest in robbing out the weaker ones.
Clearly, all this variation is the result of the many drones each queen mated with. The quality of the queens depends very much on the quality of the drones in your area, and the more, the better.