Understanding Bee Colony Dynamics
Role of the Queen
The queen bee is responsible for the colony’s reproduction, laying up to 3,000 eggs per day during her peak season, ensuring the continuation of the hive. The queen bee releases pheromones that help maintain the colony’s cohesion, suppress the workers’ ovary development and communicate with worker bees. Without a queen, the hive will become disorganized and eventually collapse.
Worker Bees and Their Responsibilities
Worker bees are female bees that perform various tasks within the colony. Their responsibilities include foraging for food, caring for larvae, tending to the queen, and maintaining the hive. Worker bees live a short life during the busy months, ranging from four to six weeks. Without a queen, worker bees may attempt to compensate for the loss by laying unfertilized eggs, which produce male drone bees rather than the more vital worker bees. A colony with laying workers rarely often becomes hopelessly queenless and eventually collapses.
Drone Bees and Their Purpose
Drone bees are male bees within the colony, and their primary purpose is to mate with a queen from another hive, ensuring genetic diversity within the honey bee species. Drone bees have a limited lifespan dying shortly after mating. The increased production of drones due to laying worker bees destroys the colony, as drones do not contribute to food resources or brood care.
Life Expectancy of Bees Without a Queen
Potential Lifespan of Worker Bees
Worker bees typically have a lifespan of four to six weeks during honey production seasons, when their activity levels are high. In a hive without a queen, no new worker bees emerge to replace those dying in the field. Without intervention, the colony may not survive longer than 8 weeks.
Impact on Drone Bees
Drone bees, the male bees in the colony, usually have a single role: to mate with a queen. They offer no assistance to the colony they are born into. If the hive becomes hopelessly queenless, the workers may start laying eggs, which hatch into drones. The drone population may increase, but this is temporary since no new workers are hatching to care for these drones. It is thought that it might be the dying colony’s attempt at getting its genes out in the world one last time before it dies.
Causes of Queen Loss
Swarming or Supersedure
Swarming is a natural process where a colony splits, with a portion of the colony and the old queen leaving to form a new colony. During this process, a new queen is raised in the original colony. However, there may be cases where the new queen doesn’t survive, leaving the colony queenless.
Supersedure is a process where an existing queen is considered unfit or is failing, leading the colony to try and replace her with a new queen. Similar to swarming, supersedure can sometimes lead to queen loss if the new queen doesn’t make it to maturity or fails to mate properly.
Diseases can also be a significant cause of queen loss. Pests like Varroa mites can transmit viruses to the queen, leading to her untimely death or poor overall health. Similarly, other infections or parasites can attack the queen and weaken her, leading to a non-functional or dead queen bee.
Environmental factors, such as exposure to pesticides or other chemicals, can lead to queen loss. Beekeepers must be aware of potential exposure risks and take steps to minimize the colony’s contact with harmful substances.
Additionally, extreme weather conditions and lack of forage can stress a colony and potentially impact the queen’s health. Providing adequate resources for the colony and equipping them to withstand inclement weather can help reduce the chances of queen loss due to environmental factors.
How a Colony Reacts to Losing a Queen
When a honey bee colony loses its queen, the worker bees immediately initiate emergency measures to restore balance to the colony. In this section, we examine how a colony reacts to losing a queen by looking at three sub-sections: Emergency Queen Rearing, Worker Bees Laying Eggs, and Colony Collapse.
Emergency Queen Rearing
In the event of a queen’s death or disappearance, the worker bees quickly identify a larva to turn into a new queen. They select a few young larvae and feed them with a nutrient-rich substance called royal jelly. This enables the larvae to develop into queen bees. It takes approximately 16 days for a new queen to emerge. Once she does, she must mate and begin laying eggs. This process can take up to five weeks before the colony can start reproducing again.
Worker Bees Laying Eggs
In some cases, worker bees might begin to lay eggs in an attempt to keep the colony going without a queen. However, these worker-laid eggs are unfertilized and will only develop into male drones. This can lead to an imbalance in the hive population, as drones do not contribute to the colony’s overall survival, and their presence consumes valuable hive resources.
A queenless colony may only survive between 6 and 8 weeks if the remaining bees cannot raise a new queen. If a new queen cannot be raised in time, likely, the colony will slowly collapse as the worker bees age and die off without new generations to replace them.
Assisting a Queenless Colony
There are two main methods of assisting a queenless colony: introducing a new queen and combining colonies.
Introducing a New Queen
Introducing a new queen can be a tricky affair. Even though the colony is in dire need, they might still reject a new queen and kill her. When introducing a new queen, beekeepers should follow these steps:
- Verify the absence of the old queen and remove any queen cells
- Place the new queen in an introduction cage inside the hive
- Allow the worker bees to acclimate to her scent for a few days
- Release the queen into the hive when worker bees begin to feed her through the cage
New queens can be purchased from reputable suppliers or beekeepers can produce their own. These steps help to ease the new queen into the colony, increasing the likelihood of the colony accepting her.
Another option for a queenless colony is to combine it with a queen-right colony. This method helps to strengthen both colonies, as the bees without a queen will join the queenright colony, and their numbers will help support that colony’s health. Here are the steps to combine colonies:
- Place a sheet of newspaper between the queenless and queenright colonies, puncturing it with a few small holes to allow the scent of the two colonies to merge
- After a few days, the worker bees will chew through the newspaper, combining the colonies on their terms
- Monitor the hives closely to ensure a peaceful merge and successful combination
By addressing a queenless colony promptly and employing either the introduction of a new queen or the combination of colonies, beekeepers can help to maintain healthy bee populations and prevent the decline of queenless hives.