Category Archives: Honey bee biology

Posts about the biology of honey bees.

It is not royal jelly that makes a queen

I am working on my next Bee Culture column, and ran across this interesting article in Wired magazine. Everyone wants to learn more about honey bees!

royal Jelly



Bees Are Collecting Pollen & Spring Is Coming!

Daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths – the big, colorful blossoms that we associate with spring – may not have made their annual appearance yet, but spring is gradually moving north. Beekeepers know it because their bees are carrying more and more pollen back to the hives. This activity has been going on for some time further south, and is now reaching Tennessee and Kentucky. Though not the first photos I’ve received of pollen laden bees this year, the two I’m sharing with you here are particularly nice. They were sent to me by my Tennessee friend Fred Sloop.

                                  Click photo to enlarge – a Sloop Family photo

Lots of pollen collection not only signifies blooming in the bees’ foraging range, but also means that brood rearing is underway in earnest in the hives. Pollen consumption is integral to the rearing of new bees and, in the process, stimulates the bees to collect more pollen, which in turn ….. Hence the frenzied activity we are beginning to see.

Maybe there is a beekeeper on staff at National Public Radio, or maybe it’s something in the air. At any rate, a few days ago NPR ran a story about how the collection of pollen by bees  is facilitated by a slight, negative electrical charge in flowers. As bees fly they gain a slight positive charge from friction with the air. When they visit a flower, the pollen is literally electrically attracted to the hairs on their bodies. Honey bees actively collecting pollen will work purposefully to free it from the flower, but electrostatic attraction ensures that the flower’s needs are met whether or not the bee is interested in pollen on given flight. (The NPR spot also sights a recent study at the University of Bristol which demonstrates that bumble bees, at least, can sense the flower’s electrical field and use it to guide themselves to nectar sources and to avoid those which have just been visited by another bee.)

But wait, even more remarkable things happen after the pollen is on the honey bee’s body. NPR left out the most interesting parts. The bee uses her forelegs, which have hairs Continue reading

Queen rearing by honey bees

With all the swarming we’e been seeing this year our hives are busy producing new queens. I’ve written already this spring about my concerns of the replacement of queens in my hives. What follows is a brief article on the process of queen rearing by our bees.

It starts with queen cells
The first stage in the queen process is the creation of a special cell in which the queen will be reared, called a queen cell. There are three different kinds of queen cells, which are classified based on why the bees are producing new queens (and they rarely try to make just one queen at a time). These are: swarm cells; supersedure cells; and emergency cells.

Swarm cells and supersedure cells are both the result of the planned production of queens due to the hive preparing to swarm or sensing a need for a new queen because the current one is failing. These cells are made by the bees for the sole purpose of rearing a queen and in the beginning are called “queen cups.” The queen lays eggs in these cells and, from the start, the larvae hatched from these eggs are destined to be queens. The cells are a signal to the nurse bees to feed the larvae within the diet of royal jelly, which will cause them to develop into queens. Continue reading

A Beekeeper Asks: Multiple swarms from one hive?

A beekeepers asks:
I had a hive swarm three times in a week. They would go about 30-40 feet up in the trees, after they would swarm it seemed they would disappear, and a couple days the same hive would swarm again. Is this normal? The last time they swarmed they must of left. Got a call from a neighbor a mile away with a swarm in the back yard eye level , finally got to give them a new home looked like mine, but they are now.

Phil’s reply:
There are two possibilities of what was going on.

One is that the swarms you saw went back into the hive they emerged from, which will happen if the queen does not leave with the swarm – a not uncommon phenomenon. During swarming the queen does not lead the swarm, but goes along with it. If she misses the boat, so to speak, the swarm will return to the hive after they discover she is not with them. However, they will swarm again later. The swarming behavior is delayed, but the urge is still there. To be certain that the bees went back into the hive, you must actually see them return. A couple of weeks ago, I had a swarm in a tree. While preparing to try to capture it, I lost sight of it for less than ten minutes. At the end of that time they were GONE! Did they go back in the original hive or did they just leave for another home? I’ll never know, since I did not actually see them go.

The other possibility is that you had a primary swarm followed by after swarms (also known as secondary swarms.) A hive may swarm multiple times, with some period of time in between. The original queen will leave with the first swarm. Secondary swarms depart with virgin queens as they emerge from the queen cells. If you did not actually see the swarms return to the hive, they may have been secondary swarms.

There is no way of knowing whether the swarm you captured is a swarm from your hive. I actually think it is more likely to have been from a bee tree near where you captured it. I have, on a number of occasions, captured swarms well away from any beekeeper’s hives, and asked myself where they came from – then walked around and found a bee tree. Question answered. Bee trees are not uncommon these days, at least here in Kentucky, and I hear the same thing from beekeepers in other states as well.


A Beekeepers Asks: Questions about missing queens and laying workers

A beekeeper asks:
About three weeks ago I caught a very large swarm and immediately placed it in two deep hive bodies with 10 frames in each. I looked in the hive today and found the top box was almost completely full of capped honey, lots of bees, but no brood. The bottom box, had some capped honey at the top corners of the frames, little pollen and two frames in the middle with some capped brood. I did not see the queen and my question is how to tell if a queen is present in the hive?

Phil’s reply:
I never worry about seeing the queen, unless I’m making nucs (I do not want to move her), re-queening, or doing a task where I really need her in hand. I depend on seeing eggs or larvae to determine her presence.

With this heavy nectar flow and a new swarm, you are not likely to see brood in both boxes, even with a big swarm. The bees are putting lots of nectar in now. If you are seeing eggs or larvae (uncapped brood) in the bottom box, you have a queen. Don’t worry about actually seeing her. If you look in the area (on these frames) where you are seeing the brood, that is the most likely place for her to be hanging out.

You may wish to put a honey super (or two) on that hive. I have 2 hives containing large swarms I have caught, which are putting honey in supers.

A beekeeper asks:
About three weeks ago I had a large swarm emerge from a hive (I saw and captured it). The top box in that hive is full of capped honey, but the bottom one is almost empty with only a few cells of capped brood. I did not see the queen. I’m concerned about the hive. Advice?

Phil’s reply:
You say there is some capped brood in the bottom hive body. That indicates that there was egg laying occurring less than three weeks ago, perhaps a few days longer if that is capped drone brood. It can take a hive between 2-3 weeks to produce a laying queen after it swarms and leaves capped queen cells. As I said in a recent post, queens emerge 7 to 8 days after the queen cells are capped. (And swarms will depart as soon as that happens.) Another week will pass before the virgin queen is ready to make her mating flights. During that time, she reaches sexual maturity and makes orientation flights. After successfully mating, she will start laying eggs in 2 to 3 days. Added up, it takes 2 to 3 weeks for the new queen to start laying eggs after a hive swarms. I would give it a few more days before considering installing a new queen. You may have a virgin, or a newly mated queen that has not yet started laying eggs.

I sometimes call this period, from just after the hive swarms until most of the brood in the hive emerges, a time of “apparent queenlessness”. It looks as though the colony is without a queen, but it may, in fact, be in the process of producing a new one. Many a beekeeper has contacted me at this time of year to tell me they thought a hive was queenless. They placed a queen in the hive or started to install one, and discovered eggs or young larvae. I advise patience before installing a replacement queen in a hive that seems to be queenless at this time of year.

A beekeeper asks:
I have a hive that has dwindled. There is a laying queen and I continually see eggs, but there is never brood. At one time I moved a frame of nurse bees into the hive, thinking that might be an issue, but it did not help. There are some capped drone cells which makes me wonder if the queen is not laying and workers are. The eggs seem normally positioned in the cells. Just curious what you thought.

Phil’s reply:
You may have a queen who has run out of sperm, so she is laying only drone eggs. (I have in the past called these infertile queens, but that doesn’t really sound right. They are fertile because they can lay eggs -just not fertilized eggs that develop into workers). Beekeepers often call them “drone layers”. With both laying workers and a queen that has run “dry”, you get only drone eggs. But if you’re seeing the queen, you probably do not have laying workers.

Laying workers is a condition that can develop in a hive after it becomes hopelessly queenless, when some of the workers respond to the lack of queen and brood pheromones by starting to lay eggs. Workers cannot mate, so when the do lay, the result is the same as when a queen dries – nothing but drone brood. Though workers are always capable of laying eggs, their urge to do so is suppressed by the pheromones present in a normal hive. Since brood pheromone plays a role in the suppression as well as pheromones from the queen, it takes several weeks for laying workers to develop even after the queen is gone. We can postpone this behavior by moving a frame or two of capped brood into a hive that has been queenless for a long period.

To help determine whether you have laying workers or a queen that has run out of sperm when you don’t see the queen and are finding only drone eggs, here is what to look for:

  • Laying workers: Only drone brood in the hive, and seen in worker sized cells; multiple eggs in a cell (always more than one laying worker in hive, so more than one of them may lay in a cell); the drone brood is scattered (they miss cells). The workers do not have the instinct to lay in every cell and to position the eggs properly.
  • Dry queen: Drone brood only, and seen in worker size cells; not scattered and no multiple eggs in cells. The queen is laying, just laying unfertilized eggs.