Wednesday 8 October 2014

A Game of Drones

Its been a very steep learning curve since the Gatsbees arrived back in March, but their first summer has seen Gatwick's honey bees thriving! With the colonies rapidly expanding and swarming through the season it's not always easy for us novice beekeepers to stay on top of things. Luckily our mentor Gillian is keeping a close eye on everything and knows how to cope...  

Gillian and myself, adding frames to a hive

A frame of bees

Just as we thought everything was calming down, a late summer check of one of the hives revealed patches of large domed capping on several frames of worker brood cells.... Hmmm.
These larger cells containing drone (male) brood are expected earlier in the summer, when the colony is beginning its reproductive cycle. A drone's main task is to mate with virgin queens, after which they die. Those who have not fulfilled their duty are kicked out, usually in late August and then also die (tough gig). We should definitely not be finding drone-comb at the end of summer when the colony should be storing food for the winter!

The domed capping of drone brood can be clearly seen on these cells

A drone-laying queen might be an old queen, running out of her stores of sperm and only laying unfertilised eggs. However, after a bit of careful investigating, we discovered that this colony had beat us to it and replaced their old queen without swarming; a process known as supersedure. The only problem was she had been superseded by a tiny new queen which was obviously struggling to keep the colony going, only producing males and not enough workers for the colony to survive the winter.

This sub-standard queen was only recognisable by her orange legs

The solution is to remove the drone-laying queen and unite the bees with one of our other 'queenright' colonies. The hive next door, containing a strong colony with plenty of young bees and food stores, all in close proximity, made it the perfect choice for a merger.


The queenright colony is prepared by placing a sheet of newspaper and a queen-excluder on top of the frames of the brood chamber. The (now queen-less), drone-heavy colony is placed on top and as both colonies slowly chew their way through the newspaper, their pheromones gradually mix and the bees are smoothly integrated but none the wiser.

  After a week, the bees have chewed their way through to unity 

This 'supercolony' with its shared resources should now have a much better chance of surviving through the winter... "When you do things right, they won't be sure you've done anything at all." (Futurama).

Abdomens pointed in the air, they fan their wings while releasing a pheromone, alerting the colony to the new entrance

Gill keeps diligent reference notes of dates and individual hives

Trophallaxis - where food and chemical secretions are transferred by mouth between individuals.
This occurs with many of the social insects such as ants, bees and wasps

Our beehives are now being left to their own devices as the colonies make good their stores for winter. We will check on the hives periodically and look out for any winter activity.

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