Babysitting the queen

Her Majesty, the Queen.    (Photo by Calgary beekeeper Stephen Bennett)

A friend left town for a few days. She had two queens, in cages, which she’d acquired for her hives. As it turned out, she used one of them but her second hive wasn’t strong enough to split. That meant that she had an extra queen. She didn’t know what to do. I told her that I’d  babysit the queen until she returned.

My friend was surprised that I could watch the queen for a week. The concern was that the queen wouldn’t be very mobile and wouldn’t be laying eggs – for a whole week! I reminder my friend that during the winter, queens aren’t very mobile and aren’t laying eggs for a month or more. I could keep the caged queen and her attendants in my office. It should be fine.

Part of the queens I raised one winter in Florida, the day before handing them off to a northern beekeeper.

Queen breeders often have to keep queens in cages for a few days before shipping one to a new owner. When the queen arrives at her new home, the receiving beekeeper may feel obliged to use the queen the same day. Sooner is better than later for a couple of reasons. The queen might die while waiting in custody, though that’s unlikely. The main reason you want to quickly introduce the queen to her new colony is because each day in a cage means that a thousand or more workers won’t be developing in your new colony. Bee season might be short in your neighbourhood. You normally want to get your queen into the new split or into a hive with a failing queen as soon as possible.

But sometimes things happen. In this case, the hive wasn’t yet strong enough to nuc out and the weather was unseasonably cold. Splitting a hive too early and using the extra queen would be a mistake. So, I took the job of babysitting the queen for a week while we waited for the hive to strengthen, the weather to smarten, and my friend to return to Calgary.

The queen is the slightly larger insect, lower center. The other bees are her courtiers. The queen isn’t much larger than the workers but that will change when she finally gets her own hive – she’ll be about one-third larger when she begins egg laying.

If you have several queens to hold indefinitely, you should set up a bank hive and prepare the cages, queens, holding racks, and nurse hive appropriately. On another occasion, I’ll explain how to bank queens in a colony. But for now, here’s how to babysit her majesty.

The queen was accompanied by eight attendant bees. It’s their job to groom and chat with the queen who would otherwise become bored and unkempt. I kept the attendants with the queen in her cage.

I made certain that the bees were always at room temperature and in the shade. (Not too hard to do in my office.) The queen was in a little brown bag. Someone had punched air holes into the little brown bag. I kept her in it, but the air holes amused me. Humans need lots of air so we tend to think that bees do, too. They don’t.

I’ve written about this before, but I’ll excerpt this piece, just in case you haven’t read every single blog post I’ve ever posted:

There must be some oxygen requirements, but I’m not sure what they are. Recently, researcher Stefan K Hetz studied insect respiration. Here’s a piece from The American Physiological Society regarding his work:

“. . . insects, which have a respiratory system built to provide quick access to a lot of oxygen, can survive for days without it.

“The insect respiratory system is so efficient that resting insects stop taking in air as they release carbon dioxide, according to research by Stefan K. Hetz of Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. This allows them to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in balance. Too great a concentration of oxygen is toxic, causing oxidative damage to the insect’s tissues, just as it does in humans. . .

“Insects are able to survive hypoxic environments,” explained Kirkton, the symposium chairman. “They can shut down and survive for hours or days. They have a low metabolic rate and can close their spiracles,” he said.

A queen and eight workers at the bottom of a brown paper bag are not likely to run out of air. A few holes punched in the side won’t exactly allow free air exchange anyway. But the holes make people feel better about the bees’ safety, so in that way, the air holes do perform a useful function.

OK. So, we have a queen, in a cage, in a bag, out of the sun, and at room temperature. Although I don’t overly fuss the queen’s access to fresh air, I do have a few other concerns. The cage has a bit of soft candy (made by mixing powdered icing sugar with syrup). This should keep the bees nourished for a week or so. But the soft candy sometimes turns hard in our dry climate and becomes difficult for the bees to eat. Or, if you save the caged queen for many days, the bees might actually eat all the candy and run out of food. To guard against these calamities, I collect a dab of honey on my fingertip and transfer it to the screen of the cage. The bees greedily take it. I just use a small drop – I don’t want the bees to get fat.

I picking up a bit of honey. In the cage, you’ll notice the white ‘candy’ used for bee feed. The bit that’s missing has been eaten by the caged bees.

Lightly touching the screen on this cage. The dab of honey sticks to the screen where the bees will quickly find and eat it. A water droplet is put on the same way.

Next, I tap my finger into a bit of water so that a droplet sticks to my finger. Then I touch the screen again, this time with the drop of water. You will likely see the bees stick their proboscis into the droplet which will disappear in seconds. I don’t over-feed or over-water the queen and her attendants. Never let the bees become wet or sticky. If you somehow decide that it’s in the bees’ best interest, you might offer a second or third drop, but only after the preceding one has been thoroughly cleaned up. I usually just give them a drop each morning and evening though that’s far from a scientific calculation of the bees’ needs.

The bees quickly took the honey and water. I’ll feed them again in 12 hours.

By the way, when you feed and water your pets, you should take their cage out of the bag and place it flat on the table, screen side facing up when you do this. Indirect light is fine, just avoid letting the cage sit in direct sunlight.  Also avoid too much heat such as might blow out of a heat vent.  The feeding process takes about five minutes and, of course, completely refreshes the bees’ air – just in case you are still nervous about the queen’s oxygen supply!

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Bee Biology, Queens and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Babysitting the queen

  1. Emily Scott says:

    I’ve known beekeepers babysit queens inside their bra before. Interesting about giving the droplet of water/honey.

    Liked by 1 person

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