The Importance of the Queen
Honey bees are social insects and lives in the hives or natural nests. The honey bee society is called the colony. There is a queen bee, thousands of (10,000-60,000) worker bees and some drones (0-several thousands) depending on the season.
The queen bee is the most important and integral part of the colony. The colony will not grow if the queen bee is not present, old or low quality. So it is important to check the colonies and evaluate the queens periodically. My advices are for the hobby beekeepers or the backyard beekeepers. Commercial beekeeping is different than hobby beekeeping. Commercial beekeeping is a business and it has its own applications depending on the experience of the beekeepers.
How to evaluate the performance of the queens in your colonies?
The quality of the queen is based on the genotype of the queens, genotype of the drones that the queens mated, age of the queens and the quality of the queens.
Before you open the hive give them some smoke and wait for 30 seconds or a minute. When you open the hive check the behavior of the worker bees. If they are calm and docile, your queen is genetically good. If the bees are defensive and flying around you, hitting the bee veil or suit, following you, are releasing alarm pheromone (smells like banana) the queen and/or the drones that she mated are not European or colony is Africanized. Africanization is the major problem in southern states or Africanized states. The best thing is to requeen the colony with a European queen mated with European drones. There are many queen breeders they sell excellent quality queen bees. Even though you have a very productive queen if they are defensive it may cause some problems with your neighbors. It is difficult to requeen strong and defensive colonies (Africanized) and it is better to divide the colony so each one has 4-5 frames of bees and introduce a new European queen in each colony to change the GENOTYPE.
You have very gentle bees but they are not growing. What might be the problems?
- Check for diseases and parasites. If there is any sign of disease and/or parasites the colonies can not grow. I will talk about the diseases and parasites on another day.
- Age of the queen. It is better to requeen the colonies every year or every two years. Younger queens lay more eggs, release more pheromones and grow faster. If you are happy with the performance of the queen keep her for another year. Most queens are productive for at least 2 years but some queens are superseded within a couple of months or a year.
- Quality of the queen. Younger queens are better but sometimes if the quality of the queen is not good colony needs to be requeened.
How to determine the quality of the queen
Inspect the brood pattern! If the brood area is solid, filled all the available cells with brood, the queen is excellent! If the laying pattern is not good, if there are empty cells in the brood combs either queen is old, there is disease problem or queen has inbreeding problems. Solid brood comb is the best indicator of the quality of the queen.
- Size of the queen: Usually bigger queens lay more eggs than the smaller queens. However very young queens are smaller when they start laying eggs and then get bigger. Do not judge the queen by the size, look at the brood pattern first. If the queen is small and laying pattern is not good, requeen the colony.
- Quality of the queen is also related to the age of the larva that she was reared. The younger the larvae grafted the better the queens will be reared. Queens should be reared from 1 day old or younger larvae. If the queen is reared from older larvae the weight of the queen will be smaller, spermatheca (sperm storage organ) will be smaller and will hold less sperm, ovaries are smaller (have less ovarioles). We cannot see the size of the spermathecal or the number of ovarioles without killing or dissecting the queens but usually the larger the queens, the bigger the spermathecal and ovaries.
- The quality of the queen also changes with the strength of the cell builder colonies (colonies where the queens are reared), amount of nurse bees, nectar flow or nutrition, season, number of larvae grafted in each cell builders etc.
The brood pattern is the best indicator of queen quality. There should be enough bees in the colony to evaluate the performance of the queens. The age is also very important and requeen the colony whenever the brood pattern is not good and/or the queen is older than 2 years.