The Days of Our Hives: Expecting Royalty

Several queens developing in peanut-shaped cells

While royal births are rather common fare in the bee yard, to those of us that follow the dramatic highs and lows of the TBG bees’ social lives, the arrival of royalty is as − if not more − exciting than the news of the new Prince George.

Bee queens come from humble beginnings. Any egg can become a queen if it is fed an exclusive diet of royal jelly. Royal Jelly is produced by the bees themselves and is a part of every developing bee’s diet for about three days. Queens are fed exclusively on this mixture of amino acids, enzymes and trace minerals which cause the developing larva to take on a bee’s hallmark of royalty − ovaries that mean business. A queen’s body is 80 per cent ovaries which come in handy whilst laying an average of 2,000 eggs a day.

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Queen Bee larva develop in a pool of royal jelly

You’ll recall that earlier in the season, the bees in the Pollen Nation hive were swarming. A little sleuthing told us that these weren’t your typical swarms. In a normal swarm situation the old queen vacates the cramped hive with a contingency of the colony to look for new digs. She leaves behind upwards of 30 nascent queens ready to emerge. When the first queens leave their brood cells they battle one another until just one remains victorious. So it goes with the third queen, and the fourth, and… you get the picture. As in most of nature, the fittest survives to rule the hive.

When the prevailing queen has dispatched her sisters and attained supremacy, she will leave the hive on a ‘matrimonial flight’. The male bees or drones, who have mostly been loafing about the hive just waiting for their big moment, fly off after her. Once the queen has mated with several drones she returns to the hive (whereas for the drones, this field trip is one-way only) and settles into a life of being an egg-laying machine.

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A marked queen surrounded by attendants

Rather than the expected battle royale in the Pollen Nation hive this spring, the emerging queens kept giving each other the slip and took off on their mating flights. With so many bees in the hive, these departures did not go unnoticed and the mating queens found themselves at the centre of an inadvertent swarm.

Well, we’ve been keeping an eye on the queen that reigned supreme in Pollen Nation, and for almost a month, her svelte figure made it all too clear that she hadn’t yet mated. It may have been fine for HRH Elizabeth the First to rule as the Virgin Queen, but in the bee world that’s a short road that leads to ruin. So we’ve had to say a fond farewell to our unmated, home-grown queen and bring in a pinch-hitter. This new queen was bred for good honey production and without a taste for the tree tops − and she even arrived in her own travelling boudoir.

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The new queen arrives in style. The queen is marked with a pink dot on her thorax to make her easier to find.

The new queen arrived with a few attendants in her Queen Cage, sealed with candy plug. By the time the bees in her new hive eat through to her, they will have accepted her scent and her role as their monarch and mom. We’ll check again in another 10 days to see how everyone is getting along, and hopefully see signs of a new generation of bees underway.

And everyone will live happily ever after.

Photo credit: Trish Cassling