In The Apiary : Early May : Queen Cells

Some say that our Queen is so much in the public eye that she is, in effect, a prisoner of her own subjects. Hold that thought.

The situation with a Queen Bee is remarkably similar. Constantly attended by her retinue as she makes her progress around the hive, she is gently persuaded to lay the appropriate worker bee or drone egg in the cells selected by her adoring populace.

It’s a pretty straightforward proposition: everyone has their role to play, everyone knows their place, like a 1970s BBC sitcom.

But what happens when things go wrong? Let’s look at one particular way in which the serenity of a beehive can be usurped: one of my Queens (Scarlett of Shard Hive) has produced some off-tempered bees. Think Syria. This makes them hard to work with and the final straw came when they started to “ping” my elder son when he was making a mobile call on our top terrace. Now, Queen Scarlett is the youngest and, by popular acclaim, the favourite Bermondsey Street Queen in our on-line poll.  Not surprising, really, since she has obvious charms: an alluring crescent curve to her abdomen and the carefree splash of red on her thorax is, well, red.

Scarlett New Queen Of Shard Hive
Exiled Queen Scarlett of “K”

But I have had to depose Queen Scarlett, banish her from Shard Hive and sent her into exile to a Kieler mating nuc bleakly called  “K”.

Here, she can raise a small family and not be a nuisance. With Scarlett out of the way, I can get to work. I inserted a frame of newly-laid eggs from Abbey Hive, where mild-mannered Queen Primrose is 2014’s prime breeding stock, into a 5-frame nuc and placed it where Shard Hive used to be. This means that the flying bees from Shard Hive have now taken up residence in the new nucleus hive and will raise a new Queen from Primrose’s genes, not Scarlett’s.

In the meantime, the bustling population of Shard Hive (that Scarlett sure knew how to fill a frame of brood!) have recognized that they are now queenless and have selected 5 eggs as prospective new Queens, fed them with rich royal jelly and built the tell-tale, drooping Queen Cell to accommodate the larger larval body of a new Queen Bee.

Charged Queen Cell - Shard
A White Larva Inside The Intact Queen Cell

They started that process on 23rd April (St. George’s Day), so by the time I intervened on the morning of 27th April, this is what they looked like from the outside. There cells are very different from the Queen Cups discussed here in April. These silos are loaded with white, thick Royal Jelly and a plump, pearly larva, gleaming like a torque necklace. Here’s a peek:

Charged Queen Cell 4 - Shard
An Opened Queen Cell

So I have carefully shaken the (slightly disconsolate, I have to admit) Shard Hive bees off each of the 11 frames to ensure that I found and removed all 5 Queen Cells charged with Scarlett’s gene-pool. Since bees can only make Queen Cells with eggs/larvae which are no more than 3 days old, no more Queen Cells will be constructed in Shard Hive.

In two days’ time, once the bees have adjusted to their queenless state, I will carefully introduce Queen Carmen to Shard Hive. Carmen is a new addition to my breeding stock and I look forward to her Buckfast-cross regalia: industrious, but gentle. Shut in a white plastic cage as big as your palm and then placed on the face of a brood comb, Queen Carmen should be acclaimed as the successor to Scarlett by the restive bees of Shard Hive. And, almost immediately, their testy temperament should subside, calmed by Queen Carmen’s serene pheromones.

And I will breathe a sigh of relief.


Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive
Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive

What’s in a name ? I didn’t get it when my wife suggested that I give the new Queen in Shard Hive a name: “She’s already got one,” I replied cheerily: “It’s JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ”.

She responded with a smile and a gentle, but devastating, shake of her head. Wrong answer! I’m notoriously bad at names and I had to concede that she was right. “JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ” was just not going to cut it, if her Majesty was ever going to get on first-name terms with the discerning audience of Apis.

But look at it from my point of view: the name JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ contains all the genealogical information required to make good breeding decisions for the Bermondsey Street Bees (it is a combination of these data points: Supplier/Breeder’s initials and my own serial number. Generation In Apiary. Bred in Local / Out Apiary. Month. Year. Origin of Breeding Line). A record of the genealogy and the performance of a Queen bee is vital for future breeding decisions and a thriving, healthy, productive and good-tempered hive of bees.

As an urban stockman, I select the breeding lines for my Queens,aiming to optimise docility, yield and disease resistance. It is crucial that I can be confident in the genetic make-up of my home-grown virgin Queens, since the 20 or so drones (male bees) whose sperm she will absorb on her single mating flight are beyond my beekeeping control. From that point of view, my role as a beekeeper is like a sous-chef who prepares a well-seasoned stock – and then hands it on to twenty chefs to each add their own ingredients and stir the genetic soup. I can only hope that the selective breeding lines in my newly-hatched Queens are strong enough to disprove the old adage that “too many chefs spoil the broth”.

The other problem with naming the new Queen was that, since the Romans coined the Latin word “regina”, all the good names for Queens seem to be taken. For example, Elizabeth has historically been a pretty good name for Queens around these parts, but we still have one of those enthroned – and she shows no signs at all of being superceded!

But then I looked at the pictures I’d taken of Shard’s new Queen (see above) and it hit me in a ruddy flash! Queen bees hatched in 2013 will be marked red (beekeepers can see them more easily in a crowded hive and also identify their age). So here goes, in deference to this year’s Queen marking colour: Farewell, JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ – All Hail, Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive!