Fringe Box



Beekeeper’s Notes June 2015

Published on: 2 Jun, 2015
Updated on: 2 Jun, 2015

The Queen is dead – Long live the honeybee queen

In the second of beekeeper Hugh Coakley’s diary notes he describes how honeybees work only for the best interests of their colony, not the queen. Hugh lives in Worplesdon and has been keeping bees for six years and certainly knows a good deal about about the fascinating and complex lives of bees.

Beekeeper Hugh Coakley.

Beekeeper Hugh Coakley.

There is an oddity about our understanding of honeybees. The queen is central to the survival of the hive. She is called a queen but does she rule the colony or does she live, lay eggs and die at the behest of the workers who depend on her?

I inspect my bees weekly during the spring and summer. I try not to inspect just for interest, even though it is very interesting. There must always be a good reason to open the hive to the elements and disrupt the bees. At this time of year, the inspection is aimed at checking that all is well with the colony. Particularly to see if all is well with the queen. If there is a problem, there is a good chance that the beekeeper can help.

My bees at the moment are really lovely. Very passive – they don’t fly into my face when I open up the hive. And they are very sedate. By this I mean that they are not rushing around the comb but rather moving about slowly and calmly. This makes it much easier to inspect and it is a pleasure to work with them.

I have five hives, give or take the odd swarm or small colony. It takes me a total of two or three hours to do my weekly inspection and it is a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Can you spot the queen? She is marked with a light blue dot of paint.

Can you spot the queen? She is marked with a light blue dot of paint.

The check-up the other week was interesting. Four of my hives were fine. The colonies were building up nicely. The queens were laying well, no obvious sign of disease, plenty of pollen and nectar being brought in. And I saw the queen in each hive which is very satisfying.

I have painted a spot on my queens to make it easier to see them (this is the accepted way to make the queen stand out). They are about 50% larger than the worker bees but as you can imagine, in amongst 20,000 to 50,000 bees, spotting one particular insect is not always easy. Especially if she is hiding. If you see eggs, you are pretty sure she is there. But it is lovely to see her anyway and admire her.

With a bit of luck, I would be able to harvest some spring honey, I thought.

On the fifth hive, I saw a capped queen cell and also one in preparation by the bees but not yet complete. A queen cell is a wax chamber which holds the developing queen larva and looks just like a peanut attached to the comb. We are taught that when you see a capped queen cell, one that is fully formed and closed, the bees have already swarmed or are about to swarm – bad thing.

Alternatively, they may be about to supersede (or replace) their queen with a new one – good thing. We are also taught that if there are many queen cells, it will be a swarm but only one or two queen cells, it is more likely to be a supercedure. So I was pleased. Only two queen cells, plenty of eggs so the queen is laying on full throttle. And then I spotted the queen herself. That confirmed it, I thought and I re-assembled the hive and closed it up for the week.

Unfortunately, the bees don’t read the same books as me.

One of Hugh's hives.

One of Hugh’s bee hives.

The following week, I was called out to a swarm very near to my apiary. My suspicions were aroused. I opened up the hive and found a massive depletion of bee numbers – bad thing – no new eggs layed and no queen. So they had swarmed! So much for my ability to predict bee behaviour.

Now, back to the question of who rules the hive. It isn’t the queen. The queen does as she is told. The workers feed her but also, they can starve or kill her. They direct if, when and where she lays her eggs. They build her up or slim her down. The workers decide if their queen is not performing or if she is too old. It is cruel but they work only for the best interests of the colony, not the queen.

It ended well though. I managed to collect the swarm and they are doing nicely in a new hive. Once the new queen is mated and laying eggs, I will probably unite the swarm with one of my home colonies. As you can only have one queen, that will mean killing the old queen. It is a cruel world.

Share This Post

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *