The Drive to Thrive

E121 lives in a colony racing into spring.† She was born in the darkness but the lengthening days promise that spring is coming.† Cold nights and chill winds do not cause her doubt her clock as it is set by the earthís turn.† The foragers are bringing in pollen from the first dandelions and E121 can see the yellow flowers from the hive entrance on the day she takes her orientation flights.† They call to her but a touch from the foragers at the entrance assures her that others are providing for that need.† E121 is at the perfect age to draw wax and she spends much of her time hanging in a chain with other bees.† This day E121 is working the wax, crafting it into the newest cells.†

Honeycomb cells are hexagonal and near perfect for use of material and structural strength.† E121 did not design the pattern but it is burnt into her instinct in ages long gone and she works it perfectly.† She is one of a team of workers, each taking tiny flakes of snow white wax and chewing it, plying it into cells.† She goes to collect flakes, walking the chain of living bees and returns to find her sisters have stopped.

The scent in the hive is not right.† Though they cannot say this in words they know it.† The scent of the queen mother is weak when it should be strong.† It is spread as the queen passes and as others follow in her tracks.† Its presences assures the colony that the queen is strong, that it will grow fiercely into spring and summer, ready to explode forth on the blooms.† The queenís scent is weak and it causes the workers to pause.

A Queen CupE121 isnít sure which of them acts first but suddenly they change designs in mid cell.† It is agreement by action and other bees gather to assist.† They build a volcano shaped structure into the comb, tearing away any opposing comb to keep the structure clear.† The volcano peaks as they continue and then changes.† Flake by flake a ball shaped structure grows from the tip of the wax spike.† This is a queen cell.† Across the brood nest other bees are doing the same, a mountain range of queen cells arises in the scope of a day.

The E30 is the queen.† She is not dead.† She is not missing.† She is present and laying as often as possible.† She has no choice.† She wanders the wax city laying in rings and patches as the cells are available but as she moves past one of these outcroppings the bees surrounding her stop.† She wants to move on but faces a wall of bee heads.† The drive to lay grows by the second and she twitches with frustration.† She circles the queen cell, probing it until she finds the cell opening.† Quickly she lays a single fertilized egg in the bottom and rushes out.† Now the workers let her pass.† When she approaches the other queen cells they will repeat this act, forcing her to lay the seeds of change.

These eggs are laid in special cells and they are chosen by their sisters for a special task.† E78 hatches three days after her egg is laid, not the first of the sisters laid nor the last.† She floats on a puddle of royal jelly much larger than her worker siblings receive but more importantly she is visited constantly.† Hundreds of times a day her nurses attend to her and her sisters, feeding E78 as often as she can eat and she grows fat.† The reason for her special cell becomes quickly apparent, E78 is far larger than a normal worker bee.† She is even longer than her drone brothers though not as fat.† Stuffed with food she grows at an astounding rate and ten days later her sisters seal her into her cell to complete her transformation.† For the next four days she will undergo a metamorphosis which is a race between the queen-lings.† The winner lives.

A capped Queen Cell and Attendant.Three days after she is sealed her wings are formed and she is nearly ready.† Her worker siblings laid at the same time will not hatch for another week.† When she can she presses her thorax to the wax and vibrates, causing a strange noise to echo through the hive.† As the hours pass E78 repeats this and then suddenly freezes Ė another sister has answered, piping on her own.† E78 begins to gnaw at the cap of her cell. †For what seems like an eternity she nibbles, chewing the round dome off of her cell.† She rests only for moments to pipe and then continues.† Her hour is at hand.

In the early dawn of the 14th day of her life E78 pushes her way out of her cell and into the bustle of the hive.† It never sleeps and neither will she until she sleeps forever.† She rests on the tip of her cell and then slurps some nectar from a nearby cell.† Suddenly the piping sounds again and E78 is momentarily frozen.† When she moves again it is with purpose: a royal rage grips her, driving her through what must be done.† Quickly she finds the nearest queen cell and tears into it.† Ripping chunks from the wall, E78 quickly forms a window into her sisterís cell.† Her sister is nearly hatched but not quite ready to escape.† She will not.† E78ís stinger is smooth and curved.† Though it will not kill her to sting a mammal it is made to be used on other bees, on other queens.† She stings her sister to death, stopping only when her rival is lifeless.† Then she moves on to the next cell, and the next, and the next.

The last cell is already open.† E78 circles it.† The scent of _other_ is here, the smell of a rival.† The workers cannot sense it but E78 can smell nothing else.† She flattens herself out and pipes for the first time since she left her cell.† From the brood nest above her comes an answer.† E78 turns in the darkness with surety, heading for the sound, knowing her sister is coming as well.† Workers pass her in the darkness, touching, brushing her but she ignores them.† Suddenly she runs near headlong into another bee.† They flick tongues out, testing the scent.† It is E91, her only remaining rival.† They stand head to head, testing again and again.† Without warning the battle is joined.

E78 leaps onto her sister and the two tumble to the bottom of the hive, bouncing off of bees as they go.†† Their abdomens flex and twist as each writhes, attempting to strike a killing blow.† The workers around them could put a stop to it if they desired to.† If the colony were ready to swarm they might but in supersedure they will not intervene.† E78 and 91 wrestle through the morning hours, neither able to gain an advantage but E91 is weakening.† She breaks off the battle and scurries for the hive walls, seizing precious moments to rest.† E78 senses an advantage and presses the attack.† Again they fall and this time E91 lands flat on her thorax.† With a single well timed strike E78 stabs deep into her sister and the battle is decided.† E78 stabs her rival over and over, not stopping until other bees seize the corpse.† The mortuary bees drag her sister to the entrance of the hive and E78 retreats to the darkness.† She pipes once again and this time there is no answer.† E78 is triumphant but she is not yet the queen.

The following days and nights join together.† E78 commands no court of workers but her footsteps leave a scent that consoles the workers.† The queen is failing but a change of heart is at hand.† She takes orientation flights on her 18th day of life, circling ever further from the hive.† One day as she returns to the hive the guard bees deny her entrance.† It is warm day and the foragers are busy.† They enter and leave as they please but the guard bees block E78 each time she tries to enter.† Frustrated, she takes wing again and this time at the apex of her flight she feels a pull.† The foragers follow paths in the air she doesnít know about but this pull feels familiar to her.† As she flies out the drones take flight.† She will mate in mid air with dozens of them.† When E78 returns to the hive the drones do not.† Drones live only to mate and depositing their sperm in her spermetheca has cost them their life.† For their sacrifice E78 holds the keys to tens of thousands more bees in her abdomen.†

When E78 returns to the hive she is changed forever.† She loiters about the comb, lost.† The other bees have a purpose but E78 cannot find it within herself to follow their lead.† One day as she rests on a cell she feels an urge, an urge her sisters will never know.† Awkwardly she pears into a cell and measures it, testing it.† It is good and she back out and then back in, tail down.† She is new to this and backs right into the bottom of the cell.† Then she adjusts and effortlessly lays an egg.† As she leaves the cell workers have gathered around her.† If she were a worker and not a queen they would pull her from the cell and devour her egg.† The first worker in to inspect is E121.† E121 smells the egg.† The scent is not of the queen, not the smell of E30 but it is right.† New, different, but right.† The egg is left.† E78 selects another cell and lays again, slightly off center.† Again the workers test her egg and accept it.† As bees pass her they stop to touch E78 and then pass on the scent.† Word spreads through the colony of the new queen.††

E78 encounters her mother only once. She passes her on a comb at the edge of the brood nest, where E30 continues to move from cell to cell, laying at times.† The aggression E78 displayed to her rivals is absent.† She is a laying machine and the desire consumes her every moment.† She cannot remember a time before eggs nor the look of the sun in the morning.† If she had an identity before hand it would be lost now.† She cannot even remember to feed herself, there is only the desire to lay.

A few weeks later the early sun warms E78ís colony and the first rays find the mortuary bees struggling.† They grasp and pull at their load, straining to get airborne.† They are carrying away E30.† She died in the night, neglected by her workers and left at the edge of the cluster.† The colony is once again well and waves of her grandchildren will rise in the months to come, carrying it onward.

The View of the Hive from the House

In the depths of winter, a colony of honeybees holds tightly in a cluster, wagering their survival on the heat their wing muscles generate and the stores they prepared the previous year. As one they heed the command of instinct: Survive. In the early spring the colony walks the razor's edge. Build up too soon and they will starve before the first blossoms. Too late and the colony misses a vital window to replenish meager stores. For the colony that passes these trials new challenges await requiring new sacrifices. The greatest of these may fall upon the queen. She will take part in a ritual that can only end in her death, as a new command awakens with the turning of the sun. Survive has becomes Thrive.

This ritual, known as supersedure, will not play out in every colony. The absolute reasons for it are known only to the bees. By instinct they gauge the state of the colony, weighing its growth rate, health, stores and a thousand other factors. If the queen is well, if the colony is healthy and the growth is solid, the drama ends.† One known contributor is a type of Queen pheromone that is left as the queen passes over the comb.† Other bees track this scent about the broodnest, and it is a direct inhibitor of the desire to build supersedure cells.

If the colony is stunted by disease, parasites, weather or other factors, the blame falls first on the queen. This vote of no confidence will be fatal to her, as the writing is in the wax. She has been measured and found wanting. The workers craft queen cups from the wax, oval balls that protrude from the cell face like a tiny hollow marble. Unlike the queen cells prepared for swarming these are high in the brood nest, safe and warm.† When bees are swarming the queen cells hang from the bottom of frames, and number from seven to fifteen (or more).† In supersedure the goal is to produce a single queen, so they do not need numbers. The wax is smoothed, polished, worked over and over, until the queen approaches. She will lay a single fertilized egg in each queen cup and then the workers take over. They cling to them fiercely, vibrating their wings to keep the egg and larva that hatches soon warm. The larvae inside will eat a special diet of royal jelly, far more than the peasant sisters who raise them were fed. Moreover, workers feed queen candidates an order of magnitude more often than their common sisters.† A developing queen larva may be fed over a thousand times, a normal worker only three to four hundred times.

Even as they act for the good of the colony the bees are also working for the good of the species. This mass creation is an act of genetic roulette. The current queen mated with up to ten drones so the probability is high that the princesses are half sisters. These different fathers have endowed their daughters with genes selected for quick birth. If the colony were preparing an emergency queen, she would hatch as soon as possible. In supersedure since the goal is a single queen the workers will not prevent the first hatchling from destroying the others.† The virgin queen who bursts from her cell first rests a moment. Then amid the buzz and the hum of the hive a sound enraptures her. It is a sound like the quack of a duck, the piping of another virgin. It awakens a royal bloodlust and she quickly searches out her rivals. To find them, she pips, a sound produced by vibrating her thorax against the wax. Instinct demands of the unhatched queens that they pip back, playing a deadly game of marco polo with their soon to be murderer. She rips into their cells from the side so that they are helpless, turning their wax beds into wax tombs. With the time of her birth the princess claims her queen right. With the blood of her sisters she seals it. The workers will drag their bodies from the hive and cast them aside.

A virgin queen is torn between instincts. One whispers that she is safest when she runs. The other drives her to pip from time to time to assure herself that she is alone. With the passage of a few more days her wings harden and her hairs stiffen. The sunlight that strikes the entrance of the hive is no longer so frightening. It beckons to her and she approaches the entrance. She takes ever widening flights, assuring herself that she can find her way back. Then she returns, waiting for the next urge to drive her on.

When it comes she leaves the hive. She is only twenty one days old. Other eggs laid at the same time as her will barely hatch today, on the day she changes her role forever. The other foragers are weeks older. She flies out with them, then leaves the forage paths to follow a map no other can see. It leads over the local Drone Congregation Area, where drones from all neighboring colonies have gathered to wait. The virgin queen bears the combined sex drive of twenty thousand sisters, so on this flight she will mate with ten to fifteen drones before she touches the earth again. This isn't the head cheerleader dating the quarterback. This is the head cheeleader dating the entire football team. Like some b grade horror movie, when the homecoming queen returns, her suitors are dead. The same aparatus that forms a worker's stinger forms a drone's genitals. After mating he literally pulls them out of his body, and falls to the ground, a look of rapture on his tiny face. She leaves the hive as princess. She returns as queen.

Safe again in the living city of wax, a new desire consumes her. It is a call her worker sisters can never hear, a command so strong and loud that it drowns all other instincts. She will not fight. She will not clean. She cannot even remember how to feed herself. She knows only to answer this new command, Lay. She does. She may lay unevenly at first, perhaps two eggs to a cell, but quickly she finds the ancient rhythm like the heartbeat of the hive. Around her a court of workers grows, dispersing her scent, her pheromone, her voice to the hive.

She may lay side by side with her mother or never encounter her on the wax plains. In time her "voice" will be so strong that she is the queen; the only queen. The old queen may be crushed by the workers. She may be thrust from the hive entrance to the night chill. She may simply be ignored, till she weakens and falls to the hive floor. Thrive is no kinder than Survive. Sister against sister, daughter against mother, for the good of the Colony it will be done.

The Hive at Home

Just exactly what are these mutant outcroppings?† Queen cells?† Oh no, the hive must be preparing to swarm!† Not exactly.† Though it is true that sometimes hives will swarm with queens produced higher up in the broodnest, most often the presence of one to seven queen cells on the middle of the combs indicates that the bees are superseding the queen.†

Sometimes beekeepers are tempted to try and save the current queen, but I assure you the bees know better than you.† The real question becomes whether or not to let the supersedure play out or to replace the queen on your own.† To start with, it helps to make certain there really is a larva or egg in the cell.† Some bees keep queen cups around for insurance purposes all the time.† If yours do, check those cups every time.† An abandoned cup is not likely to have a larva.†† A cup where the nurse bees refuse to move, where they back in and out constantly?† That one has a queen to be in it.† Now itís time to decide.

You could let the drama play out.† It happens a lot, even more than most beekeepers realize.† A study once found that 30% of all queens are superseded, often without the beekeeper ever knowing.† It helps to remember the timing of queens.† Three days for the egg to hatch, ten until the larva is capped, and four more until the virgin queen hatches.† Five more until she mates (weather permitting) and possibly a couple more weeks until sheís really laying.† 45 days.† Thatís a long time to go without new bees.† When she first hatches the virgin wonít lay.

Virgin queens _run_.† They run fast.† They hide on the walls of the hive.† The easiest way to spot a virgin is to pull a frame, then look down at the next frame, still in the box.† See a bee running headlong for the dark?† Crawling __over_ other bees to get there? Thatís the one you want to get a closer look at.

Virgin queens _fly_.†† They arenít tied to the hive.† Laying queens rarely take off.† Not so the virgins, and you just hope she comes back.† Usually they will.† Donít chase the virgin unless you have to catch/kill her.† Remember the bees wonít defend their queen.† Not a virgin, not the laying one.† You can squish her on the spot.† They wonít care for a bit.

The best time to decide is before the virgin hatches.† When theyíre trapped in that cell you know where they are.† You can cut them out, transfer the frame to a nuc, or leave them be knowing what is where.† If a hive has a virgin loose in it, it wonít accept another mated queen.† It will kill her.† It will wait patiently to do so.† So decide before hand.

If you are going to let it play out, leave the hive alone for three weeks at least from the time the cell is capped.† Then monitor it closely for a laying queen.† Feel free to check back in a week to see if she hatched, but after that, leave her be for a while.† If you are lucky you may get to see the new queen head out for her mating flight Ė the hive will issue a mini explosion of bees as any available drones will follow her out.† The queen is headed for the local drone congregation area, but those drones are of course interested in getting a head start.†

If you are going to introduce a new queen, do something about those cells.† I prefer to put them in a nuc and see how they develop.† If she does well you can grow the nuc into a full colony.† On the other hand, if something goes wrong you can merge the nuc back into the main colony and have her take over there.† Either way order a new queen.† While you need to remove the old queen, make certain you have a replacement queen alive, present, and ready to go.† Otherwise you will make a bad situation worse if your replacement arrives dead and your colony is queenless.†† When you have the new queen in hand, find and squish the old one.† Hang the new queen in her cage and let the bees get used to her with the candy still covered with a cork.† You cover the candy because a strong hive can blaze through that candy in hours.† If the bees arenít aware the old queen is gone, it will take a bit for them to decide not to kill the new queen.† Given that you may have just shelled out a large chunk of change for her, I would recommend patience.† After five days or so go back and let the queen out.† The workers on the cage should be extending their tongues to her and otherwise trying to care for her.† If not, remove the cork and let them chew threw the candy.† A week later you can go back and look for eggs.†

In supersedure the key thing to remember is that you need to monitor the hive for a laying queen.† If the old one is just fading out everything will be fine while you get a new queen.† If she stops laying entirely you may need a queen immediately.† Watch carefully, be patient, and remember the bees know better than you do in most cases.† As always.