There are times in life when you can tell that you are witnessing something slightly incredible – yet you don’t have the foggiest idea what’s actually going on. Here’s an instance which occurred in my Suffolk apiary recently, with some amazing footage of what is called “Queen Balling”. Hint: keep your eye on the yellow dot in the lower right quadrant of the screen!
First, some background.
The classic diagnostic test for Queenlessness in a hive is to introduce a frame of brood containing eggs to the hive. If, after a few days, the bees have started to construct Queen Cells (QCs) using the eggs, it is a sign of Queenlessness. If the bees treat the eggs as ordinary brood, to be fed and subsequently sealed over with wax, until the bee emerges 21 days later, then the hive is Queenright.
In this case, after 3 days, there was no sign of QCs on the test frame, but the bees were calm, organized and diligent, with polished brood cells. That all suggested that they probably considered that they had a Queen.
So I decided to try a new technique: remove a fertile Queen from her colony and insert her into a sealed Queen cage and lay her on top of the bars of the hive being tested. The reaction of the worker bees would be highly indicative of their state of queenlessness: if they showed polite, but sustained interest, they would probably be Queenless. If they responded with hostility, then they would most likely be Queenright.
I did this with my veteran 2012 matron Queen, the yellow-marked Amber. The indication was that the bees in the hive being tested were very interested in Queen Amber and not at all hostile, so I withdrew her after a few minutes, tipped her out into her home hive and watched with sudden concern as her daughters mobbed her (which is called “balling”).
This is the technique which bees use to envelop, overheat and kill intruders such as the European hornet. On the basis that the bees knew what they were doing with their very familiar Queen, I grabbed my camera and recorded the event. You can see Amber awash in a tide of bees, with the faded yellow dot on her thorax.
Well, I can reassure you that no bees were harmed in the making of this video. Queen Amber escaped completely unscathed. My best guess is that the bees noted the scent of another hive/another Queen from the hive/queen cage and were anxious to bend their bodies around Amber to protect her and re-absorb her distinctive pheromones.
Any other suggestions out there ?