The thought of harvesting honey from my own hives had been a fascinating perspective most of my life; however, the potential to be bombarded by thousands of tiny kamikazes was terrifying, and that hindered my ambition for many years.
About 15 years ago, I decided “so be it” – I wanted honeybees. I started off with two hives, and I am so glad I did.
The first year I had to re-queen three times. Once, the queen got stuck in the queen excluder and died; once I accidentally smashed her (new keeper here), and once – I’m not sure what happened – she was just gone.
Because I started with two hives instead of one, re-queening was very easy. All I had to do each time was move one frame of freshly laid eggs into the queenless hive about every four or five days. They raised up their own new queen.
With my work schedule at the time, I was not able to check on the bees very often. It could sometimes be up to two months before I had a chance to get into my hives to inspect them. Needless to say, there were times when I needed to correct issues which had gone on too long.
The following year, I had a queenless hive with laying workers. Everyone told me that when you had a laying worker, the hive was dead and to just start over. I, being my stubborn determined self, decided they were wrong and it should be possible to re-queen it. By this time, I had four hives, three healthy ones to draw from and the laying worker hive.
About every three days, I pulled a frame of eggs out of the laying worker hive, replaced it with a frame of eggs from a good hive, placed the bad frame into the freezer overnight, and switched it with a good frame when I pulled another one. The pheromones released by those eggs told the worker bees that the eggs were queen laid and not worker laid. But with the absence of an actual queen, there was no queen to reject and kill. By the third frame rotation, I noticed the worker(s) had stopped laying and they were making emergency queen cells. Within a few more weeks the hive had a new healthy laying queen. This was the first of three times I had to re-queen a laying worker hive, and all were successful.
A honey bee hive consists of three adult castes, each with their own responsibilities within the hive: queen, worker (females), and drones (males).
With the average hive size containing between 20,000 to 80,000 workers, phero-mones are one way in which the hive communicates.
Drones take about 24 days to hatch and have a single task to perform, mate with a queen. After mating, the drone dies. If he does not mate, his life will end at the fall/ winter clean out the workers do. Since the males do not work to bring in nectar or pollen, nor do they work to clean the hive, and because they are not needed to mate with a queen during the winter, they are considered a drain on the health and resources of the hive and are kicked out. Many will die from cold, or from starvation on the doorstep of the hive as the guards refuse to let them in and the workers no longer feed them.
Worker bees will hatch around day 21 and move through several different stages as they age. When the new worker first emerges from her cell, she must clean the cell she came out of. Depending on the needs of the hive, she may continue to clean other cells until around 15-16 days old or move into becoming a nurse bee by day three or four. Between three and 11 days old, workers generally become nurse bees, caring for other eggs/ larva until transitioning into house bees around 12 days old. As a house bee, the worker may: seal honey cells, feed drones, move food around the hive for storage, attend the queen (including pre-digesting her food for her), fan the nectar and circulate air through the hive to help regulate moisture and temperature, move eggs as needed, produce wax and build comb, carry water, make propolis, and seal cracks. Before going on guard duty around day 20, the 18-day olds become undertakers, removing the dead from the hive. The undertakers and guards have the shortest tenure lasting only about two days each. After the worker bee turns 22 days old, they will remain foragers until they die; usually about 6 weeks later (up to six months over the winter since the work is not as strenuous).
Queens take about 16 days to hatch and may live up to five years (some reports show up to seven years), although most beekeepers will re-queen much more often. The queen will only mate once in her life and stores the sperm in a special organ. She pulls from this store as she is directed by the worker bee committee to lay a fertile egg. Worker bees can sense if she begins to run out of these stores and will replace her before she does. She can lay around 2,000 eggs per day; that is a lot of eggs during her lifetime.
Depending on the location and environment, a queen may stop laying during the cold winter months while the hive struggles to maintain its temperature and no food is being brought into the hive.
A queen can choose if she lays a fertile egg, which will become a female worker or new queen, or an unfertile egg which eventually becomes a male/ drone; however, she is not the one who decides which.
All worker bees are female. Collectively, they keep check on the health and stability of the queen, drone count, worker numbers and health, space or lack thereof for expanding, food stores, etc. If the workers feel the hive is doing well with a good amount of room to grow but perceive the queen is aging, ill or not doing a good job, they will create a queen cell to raise up a new queen to replace the old one. The queen has no choice in this.
If the hive decides it needs to swarm, there is much planning to be done. Since the queen spends her time laying eggs and not flying, she is a poor flyer and must be prepared for the move during a swarm. Weeks beforehand the attendants will limit her food to reduce her body weight by about 1/3 so she can fly longer distances.
While the workers prepare the old queen for flight, they instruct her to lay more unfertile eggs so the new queen will have mates. To do this, the workers create cells slightly larger than the normal cells.
When the queen gets to a cell, she will inspect it to be sure it passes the cleanliness and well-built tests. After it passes her tests, she will measure how large it is. If the cell is “worker” size, she will lay a fertile egg, if the cell is a little larger, she will lay an unfertile egg to raise up a new drone.
When a new queen is needed, many queen cells are created to guarantee a strong and healthy new queen. The first queen to emerge hunts for all the other queen cells so she may sting and kill any would-be successors or competitors.
Unlike worker bees, who can only sting once then die, the queen can repeatedly sting an opponent. The drone’s anatomy is made for mating and therefore it cannot sting at all.