I haven’t posted much about my honeybees in awhile, and I’m sure you’re dying to know how they’re doing. Here’s what’s been happening:
After joining my two colonies when the South hive was queenless, I checked on them a few times, but mostly left them alone as they busily worked to store up enough pollen and honey for winter. But in September, it was time for me see how their stores were coming, in case I needed to feed them sugar water to help them along. I was very frightened for them when I did my hive check. There was very little stored up. And more worrying, there were very few bees. I thought for sure they were doomed.
I began feeding them sugar water, and spent time researching and checking them for diseases in case they were suffering from something I could treat. But not too long after, they hive started to thrive again. The comb was getting filled up with curing honey, there was brood (baby bees), and we even spotted the queen strolling around on one of the frames. Phew.
But we did notice something else, too. Not all the bees look the same anymore. See the pictures above? On the left is what all my bees used to look like. These are typical Italian honeybees, all golden and striped and fuzzy. The hive still has a large percentage of these. But there are also bees that look very different in the hive, like the picture on the right. Notice how black and shiny the thorax is (that’s the body section where the wings are attached)? And how much less fuzzy she is all over?
Here’s what I think happened*. The hive replaced its queen. When I looked before and the hive seemed sick, their queen was either failing them, or already gone, and the new queen was yet to take over. So the hive was in a bad state. But since then, the new queen has begun laying new eggs that have built up the hive population again, and all is well. How does a hive replace it’s queen? You can read more about it here, when I explained how my South hive failed somehow when they tried to do the same thing earlier in the year. The process is called supersedure.
How would a new queen explain the different looking bees? Well, there’s no reason for the new queen to look any different from the old queen and all the other original Italian honeybees in my colony. Her egg was just one of the many many eggs that all grew up to be fuzzy like the bee on the left. But before the new queen can lay eggs herself, she has to mate. The virgin queen (which is what she’s called before this, her mating flight), will leave the hive and emit come-hither pheromones to attract any drone bees nearby (drones are, by the way, the male bees, and they hang out in what are called drone-congregating areas until a virgin queen arrives on the scene). She will mate with maybe ten or more of these drones, filling up the sperm sac in her abdomen over the course of maybe a few days, before returning to her hive. At this point, she’s got enough sperm to fertilize all the eggs she’ll lay over the course of her life.
So back again to the question of why some of my bees look different. If my perfectly normal looking new queen goes out into the world on her mating flight, and some of the drones she mates with are Italian honeybees from my hive, some of the eggs she lays will grow into those fuzzy looking Italian honeybees. And if some of the drones she mates with are from feral honeybee colonies that are blacker and less fuzzy, some of the eggs she lays will grow into those blacker, less fuzzy honeybees. And ta-da, I end up with a colony of bees that are a mix of fuzzy and not so fuzzy.
But let’s not stop there! You also want to know more about these feral honeybee colonies. And you want to know if it is a good or a bad thing to have all these not so fuzzy bees. Don’t worry, I’ll keep going. But maybe you need a break, too. Not everyone wants to hear everything I want to tell about honeybees all at once. K reminds me of this. So I promise you more, in another post, soon.
*Am I sure this is what happened? Not 100% sure. I am new to beekeeping, and I know better than to think I’ve got anything figured out for sure.