Over a week ago, I brought a nuc into my back yard. Twelve days have passed, so there should be an emerged virgin queen inspecting the neighbourhood, looking for boys. My little nuc was intentionally built as a queenless hive. When my son (left, now a confirmed beekeeper) and I dug through the deeper chasms of the little hive, we found the cluster of queen cells captured in the image above.
I was surprised by the fragility of this nuc’s effort to guarantee its future. Although this nuc had about 400 potential larvae of the ‘right’ age, the bees chose just three candidates, plus one suspended from bottom of the same frame. The bees could have built their new queen cells in other places among the three frames of brood and the hundreds of larvae, yet they picked this tiny number of tightly clustered incubating royals. The cells are vulnerably contiguous. They represent a tiny wager towards the entire colony’s future survival.
There is so much we don’t know about bees. Why so few cells? Evolution dictates the balance between a large number of well-fed queen cells and a risky slim number. Honey bees have survived for millions of years. Obviously, a small number is the right number. There is a cost to a hive if it raises too many of cells. Many cells require a lot of royal jelly, create a burden for the colony, reduce the number of future workers (each becomes a queen, not a foraging worker), and ultimately result in a grand battle-to-the-death for all those emerging queens. Personally, I would have directed the creation of a few dozen cells. But I’m not a bee.
When I produced and sold queens, I used to place about sixty grafted cells into a starter, transfer them to the appropriate finisher hive the next day, then take them to the field hours before the queens were expected to emerge. When I began distributing queen cells to the mating nucs, it was just one cell per hive. That’s right – just one cell per hive. I was even more frugal than my little backyard nuc! The result? I usually had 60 to 80% of those nucs with good laying queens two weeks later. (Better queen breeders regularly get 90%, but I was a relatively bad beekeeper.) I would have improved my odds a bit if I’d put two cells in each mating box, but it takes a lot of energy to raise twice as many queen cells. The ‘missing queens’ in the nucs were not usually due to damaged or unopened cells, but due to queens getting lost on their mating flights or eaten by hovering squadrons of dragonflies. Since only one of the cells results in a mature viable virgin, multiple cells don’t reduce airborne losses.
I’m writing this a few days after I saw that little cluster of queens cells. By now, at least one of those cells has opened (the others were probably destroyed by whichever hyper-competitive queen emerged first). The victor might already be making her first flights. But I don’t know for sure. There is a chance that all the cells failed or the new queen has already disappeared into the jaws of a western magpie – many of whom already squawked their gratitude at my nuc’s arrival in their playground. In another week, I’ll sneak a quick peek and let you know what I see.