Our hands-on learning at the Oregon State University Honey Bee Research Lab and apiaries continued as Ellen and Carolyn sent us out on a mission – inspecting yet another failing hive to determine the cause.
Hive 2: We opened this hive to find a dwindling population of bees. We pulled out frames to inspect the brood and look for signs of the queen. Initially, we were optimistic because we saw lots of eggs in the bottom of the cells. Ellen and Carolyn told us to look closer. In further analyzing we noticed that some cells had two, three, or even five eggs inside. This seemed odd. We continued to scan the frame and also noticed that the pattern of eggs on the frame was sporadic – some cells had no eggs in them, while others had multiple, and then there would be a spot with no eggs at all. We noticed on other frames that the brood patterns were spotty and consisted of only drone brood, which pops up off the frame and looks similar to popcorn. Looking more closely at the bees, we noticed that the vast majority of them were male drone bees and there were few workers. What the heck was going on? We suggested to Ellen and Carolyn that this queen maybe did not mate sufficiently like the previous hive we inspected. So they asked us to keep looking for the queen in the hive.
We continued our search and never found her. Turns out there was no queen in this hive at all. Then who was laying the eggs? Ellen and Carolyn explained that in the absence of a queen, the workers (who are also female) are no longer communicated with by the queen’s pheromones. The absence of this pheromone causes some of the workers to begin laying eggs. The trouble is, worker bees only have eggs, but do not have the ability to add fertilization to the eggs like the queen can. This results in the eggs developing into drones, male bees. It can be easy to spot when a hive has laying workers, for the reasons noted above. But, also because the way the eggs sit in the cells. The worker bees’ abdomen is much shorter than the queens, making it hard for them to get their little hind end all the way down to the bottom of the cell. This results in some of the eggs being on the side wall of the cell rather than on the bottom. And, because workers are not experienced, they often lay multiple eggs on accident.
This hive was doomed – no queen and a bunch of workers trying to be queens. However, we learned a lot and now better understand how a hive operates and the unique biology of each little bee. Keep your bees buzzin’ y’all!