We have managed to install our box of bees and the queen bee remains suspended between the frames in her cage. But in order for the hive to survive, the queen must go about the job of raising new brood. So, how do you know when to release the queen?
Remember, we started with a new box of bees. The fertilized queen, though separated in her small cage has been traveling with her new hive for several days to reach you. By now, the worker bees are clustered around the new queen feeding her, touching her and spreading the queen’s pheromones amongst the entire hive. Once this action is complete, the hive becomes completely loyal to its young queen and she can be safely introduced. This usually occurs over 3 to 5 days. If done to early, the hive will “ball or cuddle” the new queen and suffocate her.
Queen cages come in various shapes and forms. But all are made with some type of mesh sides, so the queen can be fed royal jelly which is secreted by the head glands of the worker bees. My queen’s cage came with a cork plug in one end which I removed to shepherd the queen into the marking cage. You will know it’s safe to remove the plug if the bees surrounding the cage are easily brushed aside and do not fly back to attack the cage.
Before we release the queen into her new hive, we want to mark her. We use a paint pen, color coded to the year of her birth. Red was the color for 2013 and next year’s queens will be marked in green. The queen bee is easily distinguishable by her elongated shape among a new colony. Remember a new box of bees contains one fertilized queen and about 3000 workers bee. A mature queen lays about 2000 eggs per day and by mid to late summer, the hive population will soar to over 50,000. The queen moves rapidly from frame to frame laying eggs. Without marking her, she can be hard to find among the dense populace of her hive.
Using the sponge plunger in the queen marking cage, the queen is marked with a dot of paint on her back. This can be rather tricky as you must be careful not to crush or get paint in her eyes. My friend and neighbor, John Rohrohr, the current president of Northeast Kansas Beekeeping Association (NEKBA.org) was kind enough to mark my queen. The queen bee rarely flies away once released and will usually walk out regally onto a frame and go about the business of laying eggs. Only a virgin queen will fly out on her maiden flight to mate with a group of drones. Yes, she has one wild fling with multiple of partners but that is a small tradeoff compared to the next 3-5 years (average lifespan) of producing generations of offspring.
An interesting fact about drones. Their only purpose in life is to mate with a virgin queen. The drone is a large handsome fellow with prominent eyes. The better to spot a queen on her virgin flight, I suppose. The drone flies out circling aimlessly until he is lucky or unlucky enough to find an unmated queen. I say unlucky as the drone’s barb is pulled out during the mating flight and he dies. This gives new meaning to the phrase, “la petit mort,” eh?
As I previously stated, we started with a new box of bees so the worker bees quickly established loyalty to their queen. A new hive rarely swarms. There are exceptions to every rule as sometimes bees don’t always follow the book. I was blessed with a hive that did so. I worried endlessly about my caged queen but all went according to plan. Some beekeepers replace the queen yearly as productivity wans as she ages. The bees themselves have a way of replacing the queen if needed. This process is called supersedure which we will discuss in another post. For now, my loyalty remains with the Queen!