When a colony of bees makes it through winter and their population has rebounded, one of their first instincts is to swarm. A swarm of bees is how the colony reproduces itself. They raise a new queen, fill up on honey, and then leave with the old queen and about half of the colony’s population. There is an astounding amount of information about how bees make decisions in the swarming process found in Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Dyer Seeley. In a nutshell, they land someplace nearby, often a tree, and then send scout bees to find a new place to live. The scouts come back and use the famed waggle dance to explain the location of the new home they’ve found. Whichever bee has the most workers join them wins. The survival rate for swarms is not great—there are so many natural and manmade dangers for them—and they might decide that their new home is your neighbor’s crawlspace, so for the suburban beekeeper, preventing swarms is part of the job. If you see a swarm, don’t worry, Because swarms are homeless, they don’t have any resources to defend and are not dangerous. Call your local beekeeping association, and a beekeeper will be thrilled to capture the swarm and put them in a hive. Free bees!
One way to prevent your bees from swarming is performing a split, which is essentially an artificial swarm. When I last posted about beekeeping I was on the fence about if/when to split my hive, but decided to do it after a nudge from our friend Rachele (thanks!). I would have liked to keep Queen Leslie Knope II in the Bee & Bee for purely superficial reasons, but in order to have the best chance to prevent that colony from swarming, I moved her. The idea is to move about half of the bees over to a new hive, with some resources and empty space, so that they feel like they have swarmed, keeping them from actually running away. I performed this split on May 10th and am calling their new hive The Parks Dpt.
In the Bee & Bee, I had to be really careful to leave frames that had fresh eggs on them, so that the remaining bees could raise a new queen. Right after an egg is laid, it stands up on end, like a grain of rice. Over the next day or so, it starts to tilt over to about 45 degrees. On day three, it hatches. Within the next three days, the larva that hatches either can or cannot become a queen, depending on choices made by the nurse bees. I held the frames up to sunlight to get the best view, making sure they had eggs.
I checked back three days later, just to make sure that they had started raising an emergency queen, and found a frame with nine queen cups on it, and I could see larvae in a few of them. I stopped my inspection there, to prevent accidentally damaging any potential queens. More experienced and/or less nosey beekeepers might not check on their splits as much as I did. Once I saw the queen cups, however, I left the hive alone until after 15 days had passed, on May 25th.
A virgin queen hatches after 16 days. When I made the split, I saw eggs, so I knew that they were between 1 and 3 days old. I did not know how old the eggs that the bees made into queens were, so I did my inspection in the middle of the window, in the very slim hope that I might be able to see one hatch. Once a queen bee hatches, typically, she will find all the other queen cups and sting the queen pupa inside of them, so she’s the only one left. If more than one hatches at the same time, they fight it out. In Honeybee Democracy, Seeley suggests that the workers might sabotage one of the virgins if they think the other is better.
When I opened the hive, I could see that the queen cups had hatched and some of them had been torn open at the side. It looked very much like some kind of battle royale had gone down. I also found a couple of partially destroyed queen cups that still had queen larvae in them, just not fully developed. I gently opened them the rest of the way and was able to glimpse what a developing queen looked like at different stages. It was sad, but also beautiful, thinking about what each of those baby queens could have been, had they been the one who ultimately became queen of the Bee & Bee. Wistfulness aside, it was clear to me that, unless she had been wounded or killed in a fight with other hatchlings, the Bee & Bee had a virgin queen among them. Within four days, she would be ready for a mating flight.
A queen bee leaves the hive just once (unless the colony swarms) to mate with drones. On her mating flight, she will mate with an average of 12 drones. This mating is essential to the genetic health of the colony. A queen won’t mate with drones from her own colony. Assuming she survives the flight, a queen should start laying eggs in around two weeks. So the earliest I expected to see eggs was June 2nd.
I did a hive inspection on the 2nd, holding my breath a bit. I saw eggs on the second frame I pulled from the upper brood box. They were perfectly placed, one egg per cell. I almost couldn’t believe it. As if that wasn’t good enough, moments later, I saw the newly mated queen on the frame. It was a magical moment. Bees are amazing. This new queen is named Queen Hippolyta I after Wonder Woman’s mother.
I wasn’t able to get my camera open fast enough through my sticky gloves, so I didn’t get a photo of her that day, but today, a week later, I was able to find her again and get some photos and video. She is a beautiful queen bee and is already laying tons of eggs, taking after her mother, Queen Leslie Knope II.
Speaking of, Queen Leslie Knope II is reigning well over The Parks Dpt. They aren’t working on swarming, are building out comb in a second box, and the population is booming. I got some video today of her laying eggs. Again, the only word I can think of is magical. I will be posting that as a reel over on our Instagram soon.
Making this split was an utter thrill and I am so happy that the Bee & Bee was able to make a queen successfully, even with a sudden late-May snowstorm. I hope soon they ramp up comb production so that they can start making honey, too.