Update on our bees

As you know, our bees swarmed a little over a week ago. Thanks to East Village bee keeper Ray Sage, we were lucky to catch the swarm that day. A couple of days later, Ray came back with a proper hive. The weather favored us: it was cold and rainy. Ray and Sara gave the swarm some honey from our old hive and a tub full of sugar water. Now, they had not only a dry and cozy home but also enough food to keep the queen happy and start building cells. Who would want to leave under these conditions?

Sara and Ray with the new hive. The yellow container holds sugar water as food for the bees.

We watched the hives over the week. Our “newbees” finished several portions of the sugar water and also went out to collect nectar and pollen.

Last Sunday, our beekeepers decided to take a look inside the hives. They were curious what progress the swarm bees had made, and they wanted to know whether the old hive had a new queen yet.

Checking the hive

For this planned home-invasion, our bee keepers donned protective gear and started the smoker. It contains wet burlap, paper and dried herbs. This combination produces smoke that does not smell too terrible and calms the bees.

Smoke soothes the bees (photo: Joe O’Connell)

First, the old hive was looked into. It has three levels. The shorter top level holds frames where the bees are supposed to store honey. The two lower taller boxes were full with frames that contained cells with brood: bee larvae at different stages of development and pupae. There were also a number of queen cells. These are larger than regular cells and have the shape a peanut. The larvae inside of these cells are fed a lot of royal jelly every day, a special diet that causes them to develop into queens instead of worker bees.

A frame covered with bees (photo: Joe O’Connell)

Our bee keepers did not find eggs in the cells of the old hive. This is a sign that this hive currently does not have an adult queen. For the colony to survive, the workers need to rear a new queen. This queen has to fly away, mate with drones from a different hive and come back alive. Her early life is pretty dangerous until she is back home. Then however, she’ll be very well sheltered and taken care of around the clock and can live up to 4 years. This mating flight is a mysterious event. Drones congregate in certain places and queens somehow find these congregations. How this happens is still unknown, despite centuries of bee keeping and decades of honey bee research.

The bees are carefully brushed off to reveal the cells and their contents (photos: Joe O’Connell).

A look into the new hive showed encouraging activities: there were newly build cells and some of them contained eggs! Here, the queen was doing her royal duty and her workers were busy. No wonder, that they were drinking so much sugar water every day. They have to make a lot of wax to outfit their hive. When a bee is well fed, it is nice and warm in the hive (91 °F to 97 °F) and she senses the need for it, a worker bee secretes wax scales from glands in her abdomen. This wax is then chewed and mixed with pollen and propolis (a resin) to be ready for building the perfect structure that we know as honey comb.

Honey bee (A. mellifera) with wax scales projecting from the ventral side of her metasoma (posterior body region), against white (left) and in a hive (right). Photographs by Helga Heilmann, photographer with the BEEgroup, University of Würzburg (www.beephotos.de). 

Wax scales at the abdomen of honey bee workers (photo: Helga Heilmann, BEEgroup, University of Würzburg; www.beephotos.de)

Bees are truly amazing animals. They do so much work, and all of it is well coordinated. Mind you, I am talking about female bees only. The males do nothing. Their only job is to provide the queen bee with millions of sperm for years of laying up to 2000 eggs per day. Knowing that most of them don’t even get to mate, and those that do die in the process, I feel a bit sorry for them.

However, our virgin queens desperately need to mate with drones, otherwise there will be no more worker bees and thus no honey for any of us. Therefore: best of luck to the queens and her mates for a successful wedding flight!