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I've been keeping this blog for all of my beekeeping years and I am beginning my 19th year of beekeeping in April 2024. Now there are more than 1300 posts on this blog. Please use the search bar below to search the blog for other posts on a subject in which you are interested. You can also click on the "label" at the end of a post and all posts with that label will show up. At the very bottom of this page is a list of all the labels I've used.

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I began this blog to chronicle my beekeeping experiences. I have read lots of beekeeping books, but nothing takes the place of either hands-on experience with an experienced beekeeper or good pictures of the process. I want people to have a clearer picture of what to expect in their beekeeping so I post pictures and write about my beekeeping saga here.Master Beekeeper Enjoy with me as I learn and grow as a beekeeper.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Interference with Honey Bee Democracy and the Death of a Queen

 When a swarm issues from a beehive, the bees gather around the swarming queen on a bush or tree and cluster together. They aren't just resting and they aren't settling in for the long haul. Instead the swarm is sending out scouts every minute to find a new home for the hive. As the scouts return to the swarm, they dance on the surface of the swarm and campaign for the place they think would be a good home.

Tom Seeley explains in Honeybee Democracy that the dancing scouts are trying to convince other bees to go scout out the place they have found. If the convinced bees visit the new home and like it, they return and campaign to get others to go. If the bee doesn't find the place appealing, she returns and doesn't name call or belittle the choice. She doesn't bully the bees who want to move to the new place. She just doesn't campaign for it or try to get any of her sisters to go and visit.

In the end, some new home place will have convinced enough bees in the swarm that it is a good place to resettle. The swarm rises from the tree or bush and flies to the new place and moves in.

But if a beekeeper comes along and captures the swarm, we interfere with honey bee democracy. We have autocratically decided that our hive box is where this hive should live. 

Sometimes the bees don't agree.

I have an apiary site in the community garden at Morningside in Atlanta. Like many community gardens, this one is on Georgia Power land and huge power lines run over the hillside apiary site. Georgia Power "maintains" the land because it belongs to them. I put maintains in quotation marks because they do not go near the beehives and the grass grows very tall there. 

I don't think the bees like the power lines. I have housed three swarms on that hillside over the years and not a one of them stayed. 

Most recently I caught another swarm on April 4. I think it was from my own hive. I have a very large hive that has now swarmed three times. It had some beautiful queen cells in it - huge. One had opened and the others seemed to be left untouched. The first swarm I took to Morningside and they didn't stay.

I think the second queen was in a small swarm about fifty yards from my house. My neighbor who didn't know I would come to get it, promised it to someone else, but I feel pretty sure they were from my beehives. By the time the person she called returned to Atlanta, the bees had left for parts unknown.

As I was driving home from out of town on April 4, my neighbor called me to report that he had seen a huge swarm swirling around in his backyard (just over the fence from my hives) and that it had landed in a shrub across the street. I was about an hour from Atlanta and told him I would rescue them as soon as I returned if they were still there. They were and here is the capture in my new box from Hive Butler:

I decided to house these in a hive in my backyard, about fifty yards from their original hive and this time I put a queen "includer" under the hive between it and the opening to keep the queen in the hive for a day and discourage them from leaving. It then poured rain the entire next day and I couldn't remove the queen includer until Wednesday (almost 48 hours later). I was worried that the bees would still leave, but they did not.

Instead I discovered an odd phenomenon yesterday (April 11). In front of the hive was this ball of bees. I sat down with my veil on and took a tiny stick and tried literally to get to the bottom of it. But the bees were determined to keep this ball going and stung me and wouldn't let me interfere. I noticed that the bees in the hive were continuing to fly in and out with high numbers and regularity. They did not feel pulled to gather with the ball of bees on the ground. Here's what the bee ball looked like:

From the cinder block corner in the upper right, you can see how close they are to the hive. As I disrupted them a bit with the stick, I thought I saw a queen bee but can't be sure. My theory is that like many secondary swarms, this one left its hive with more than one queen. Possibly both queens left to mate and this one was the second one to return. The bees now have a mated queen in the hive and the bees don't want two, so they are balling her to death.

Note: Sometimes hives do have two queens but typically when that happens, it's a mother and a daughter. These two would be sisters. (Need to do more research about this.)

This morning I went out, hoping to find in the grass whatever dead thing they were on top of, and this is what I saw:

The ball is still there - not as active. I expect that some of these bees are dead. Maybe later today I can get to the bottom of it, but I still think what is under the ball is a second queen. I'll know more when I inspect the captured swarm hive in about a week to see if they have a functioning queen.

Bees often ball to death intruders in the hive - like hornets - but I haven't seen hornets yet this year and I'm betting on this being a queen.

Meanwhile, aren't bees the most interesting creatures in the whole world?

At 2 PM the next day (today), the cluster/ball was much smaller. I took a stick and stirred up the bottom and indeed, it was a queen bee. If you have any doubt as you look at the photo (she is curved into a C shape), you can see that her wings end and her abdomen extends about 1/3 longer than her wings. 

We'll know for sure next week when I inspect to see a laying queen, but I'll bet I do and this is the second queen in the swarm who managed to leave to go get mated but was balled to death to keep her from becoming the queen of this colony. 

From this angle you can see how much longer her abdomen is than her wings.

I brought her inside and she is lying in state on my computer desk. Rest In Peace - she certainly didn't plan for this ending.

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