Saturday, May 3, 2014

Queen Differences

One of the greatest worries of new beekeepers is figuring out if their queen is doing her job. “Is my queen healthy? Is she laying enough eggs? IS MY BROOD PATTERN OKAY!? OH MY GOD, WHAT DO I DO!?”

Sussing out the quality of a queen can be one of the greatest challenges a new beekeeper faces. A healthy queen is a wonderful thing, but it is important to remember that she is only part of the picture. The workers of your hive have a huge responsibility. They must feed, groom, and clean the queen, spreading her pheromones throughout in the hive. After she lays her eggs, it’s the nurse workers who feed the developing larvae, determine whether she will become a worker or a new queen, check every growing baby bee for signs of disease or parasitic infestation, and enclose the new pupae in a layer of protective wax.

With that in mind, without a healthy queen none of that matters. No healthy queen? No healthy brood, let alone the workers needed to care of it. Eventually the hive will die of attrition, as the oldest workers die out and none are born to replace them.

There are many reasons that a queen might be ‘bad’....

She might have been poorly mated or bred. A typical queen will mate with 10-30 drones during the several mating flights she will taking in her first weeks of life. If she mates with fewer drones, she might not have enough sperm in her spermatheca to fertilize the number of eggs she produces every day. If the drones she mates with are closely related to her, she might produce fertilized eggs that are not viable.

The sex of a bee is determined when the queen lays the egg it is born from. If the egg is unfertilized, the egg will develop into a haploid drone, in a process called arrhenotoky, a form of parthenogenesis. A fertilized egg will generally develop into a sterile female, but has the potential to develop into a fertile female queen if it is provided with a protein rich diet of royal jelly.

The exception to this pattern is the diploid drone. If a queen fertilizes an egg using a sperm from her spermatheca and the sex allele (think XX for a girl, XY for a guy) turns out to be identical, the egg will hatch and develop into a diploid drone.

Well, it would, if the workers weren’t capable of recognizing such a genetic abnormality and ‘recycle’ the larvae almost immediately, leaving a gap in the laying pattern. The lower the genetic diversity of the drone population the queen mated with, the higher the chance that this will happen. Inbreeding is bad, mmkay?

If you’re lucky, a good queen will produce amounts of high quality brood proportional to the amount of resources coming into the hive. If you’re feeding your new hive light sugar syrup, they are likely to produce a LOT of brood. A lot. If you’re lucky enough to have comb that is already drawn so your workers don’t have to split their attention between raising brood and building comb, you will likely have a ridiculous amount of brood, and fast.

So how do you figure out if a queen is good? Look at the comb! Look at the eggs! Look at the young larvae.

Is the pattern of eggs and newly hatched larvae tightly and solidly packed? Your queen is well mated, healthy, and fertile. Don’t stress out about the amount of brood; the workers are in charge of feeding and directing the queen, and thus the number of eggs she will lay. If the brood in a new hive looks healthy, but there is only a small amount, the hive might be short of a vital resource (nectar, pollen, clean water, clean comb), but is unlikely to be suffering from a serious disease or parasite.

If your brood looks patchy, especially at the very early stages of development, you just might have a dud queen. A good queen won’t miss many cells; she’ll plant an egg in almost every one. If she has a diverse collection of sperm stored away, very few of the fertilized eggs will turn out to be non-viable diploid drones and get ripped out. Lots of egg gaps? Worry.

So what does a bad queen look like? That’s hard to explain, but easier to show. Look at the images I took from a couple of my hives over the last few weeks. The first image shows a healthy egg laying pattern. Roll the mouse over, and you’ll see the same image edited to show a poor pattern. I’ve made images using both new and old comb containing both new eggs and young larvae. Determining the quality of a queen is a very subjective thing, but I hope these images might provide a little perspective.

It is always important to keep in mind that queens, new queens especially, may take a little time to get into the groove of things. Practice makes perfect. Some queens, particularly newly introduced ones (to repeat myself), may take 2-3 weeks to start producing the kind of brood they’ll give you for the rest of their lives. Maybe they’re a grower, not a shower. If a queen in one of your hives seems weaker than the other, transfer some healthy brood and nurse bees from a healthy hive. Maybe she just needs a little more support, nutrition, or time to develop her ovarioles.

Far too many new beekeepers replace the queen too quickly without giving her the chance to develop, wasting a potentially great queen, and $20-$30 plus shipping. Wait too long however, and your hive might peter out and have too small of a population to bounce back when you finally introduce a new queen. If you’re unsure, get another set of eyes on your hive! There are lots of beekeepers in your community, and some of them will be willing to offer an opinion.

All of them, actually.

When you do decide to replace a queen, however, don’t waffle. Call your supplier, order a new one, and introduce her to her foster daughters. I’ll talk about introduction techniques and equipment in a later post.

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