Where’s the Queen?
“Where is the Queen?” That’s the question most people ask us while standing in front of our bee exhibit at the Ann Arbor Hands-on Museum. During the last 25 years we have been keeping bees off and on and I can tell you – Dave Stapp, who cares for our bees, butterflies and moths, has seen many intense faces trying to find her in the seething swarm. If you ask him, he will tell you a trick that makes it very easy for you to find the queen. Look for the blue mark on a bee’s back. That’s her! All day long (and even during the night) she lays eggs in the combs – up to 2,000 each day! If you have difficulty locating her, don’t be surprised. She likes it dark and doesn’t want to be disturbed. Her haunt is between the two layers of wax combs. So, if you can’t find her, she is playing hide and seek with you!
When we started this hive, there was no queen. Therefore we had to introduce a new one to the hive. But like all other alien bees, she wasn’t welcome. In fact, she was treated as an intruder that had to be killed. To protect her, we had to put her inside a fenced box with two candy plugs in its sides. The bees then eat the candy plugs. It takes a while before the bees finish chewing a hole into the plugs to reveal the queen. However, as they are chewing they get used to the queen’s smell and eventually accept her as the new queen. She lives up to four years inside the hive and rarely comes out. When the queen gets old, she lays eggs in a special comb. The larvae will be fed with Royal jelly – food just for queens. A newborn queen will get a colored mark on her back from her beekeeper.
There are two other kinds of bees in a hive. You can differentiate between female workers and bigger male drones. Drones don’t work in the hive, don’t have a stinger and can’t even feed themselves. Their sole purpose is to mate with a queen of another hive. Female worker bees have many tasks. A young worker bee stays inside the hive for her first month of life. She cares for the nursery, feeds drones, cleans and defends the entrance. In her second month you can see her flying outside to collect honey and pollen. It is hard and dangerous work. So hard, in fact, that she won’t survive a third month.
In early spring we bought a set of six wax starter combs to build a new home, the queen and a 3 pound bee colony for about $78. Wait a minute – 3 lb of bees? Yes, it’s easier to weigh them. Who wants to count 60,000 bees anyway? More or less, this is the amount of bees for a normal hive in summer. But in freezing cold winter, with no flowers left, there is not enough food. They can downsize to a population of 2000. Dave substitutes their food with sugar water to get them over the cold months. Even now there is a jar of sugar water.