When Beekeepers say: "Huh?"
Updated: Jun 27
Biology is an enigma. Just when scientists think they have found a consistent, reliable piece of information that is true in all circumstances, nature laughs and presents a new variation on the "rules" (which are really more like guidelines). Here are three unusual things our research team found in the hives within the first two weeks of summer.
The Unnecessary Emergency Cell:
It is not unusual, especially in the first weeks of summer, for a Queen bee to determine that she does not have enough room to continue laying eggs in her hive. Very often, a queen will "swarm" (leave the hive with a percentage of the population in order to begin a new colony elsewhere), and she will almost always leave behind several eggs which have the potential to become Queens themselves. The cells which host these eggs are called "swarm cells", and they are typically found at the edge of frames in the hive.
Sometimes, there will be a "Swarm Cell" in the middle of the frame. These are almost always an "Emergency Cell", which is a strategy employed by the colony when the Queen suddenly dies. The hive will panic and make an "Emergency Cell", which is a valiant attempt to make a queen from a non-queen egg. These structures look a lot like swarm cells, except that they can be found in the middle of the frame. Here is the Emergency Cell we found while checking on one of our hives:
Immediately, we thought that we would not find a queen, and not find any traces of a queen in the rest of the hive. As we dug a little deeper, however, we found eggs (a sure sign that a queen has been laying, and is therefore present and active in the colony), and we even found the queen herself! Somehow, the workers of the hive determined that she had left when she in fact had not. They expended much of their time and energy to avert a catastrophe that was non-existent. Talk about a lack of communication!
The Queen Carcass:
Speaking of swarms, when a queen does in fact leave, she will leave behind several potential queens in numerous Swarm Cells. When nature runs its course, these queens emerge and then fight to the death for ultimate rule over the colony. Most of the time, beekeepers can avoid Queens killing each other by destroying weak Swarm Cells. We were too late with one of our hives. The picture below shows the carcass of a new queen emerging from her Swarm Cell:
The queen who gained the victory killed this queen as she was exiting her cell and beginning life. She must have sat and waited outside the cell, ready to strike down the competition. This poor queen bee in the photograph never had a chance: she isn't even fully emerged! The victor's planning earned her the hive. Well done.
The Marked Drone:
Even though the queen is the Mother of the entire colony and the hive would not exist without her, it can be very difficult to find her as a beekeeper. I personally have mistaken many large drones for the queen. To make life a little easier, beekeepers have adopted marking their queen bees on the head of the bee with a brightly colored mark. An example of this can be seen in this picture:
The queen is more easy to spot this way, and the color of the marking corresponds to the year the queen hatched, providing a dating system for beekeepers. In one glance, they can know exactly how old the queen of any given hive is based on the color of her mark.
It would be foolish, therefore, to mark any of the other bees in the hive other than the queen - especially for someone with a tendency to mistake drones for the queen. One day while our research team was in the hives, I was looking over a frame and excitedly pointed out to the others that I had found the queen! It couldn't be a drone, because this bee was marked. But lo and behold, it was, indeed, a drone:
This drone is marked as a queen would be, and it is uncertain how that happened. He has a bright color on his head, and was large enough to be mistaken for the queen. But my luck for finding drones while looking for the queen has held fast, even to the point of a rogue drone masquerading as the royal head of the colony.
Sometimes, perhaps, we who practice science need a few laughs, and nature has a way of presenting the best jokes. Hopefully, with the help of our funny bees, we can all learn to laugh at these discrepancies, and remember to enjoy tending our hives and learning about their inhabitants, whatever we may find.