A beekeeper’s notes for June: secrets inside the hive

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“Quick! Take the egg!” whispered the worker to her younger sister. “Hide the new princess in the upper chamber where the queen won’t find her!” The young worker gently picked up the precious egg in her mandibles and ran as fast as she could past the queen’s retinue, and up the stairs where her majesty couldn’t follow. Higher and higher she climbed till she stopped with exhaustion beneath a special cell. The smells of nectar in the loftiest chamber were overwhelming and the scent of the queen seemed far away. 

The young worker placed the egg carefully inside the secret cell already prepared to receive the new princess. The egg would be safe from the queen who would be unable to get through the nectary gates and tear down the hidden queen cell.

The longest day of the year had passed on the summer solstice last Sunday. At the apiary talk had turned to the honey crop and how much could be harvested this year. Emily and I had put two supers on Queen Melissa’s hive, which were filling up nicely. “Let’s check the super frames to see which can be taken,” I said going through the top super. Around the fifth frame in, I found her. A tiny, coiled, pearly larva in a silky white bed of royal jelly at the bottom of a damaged queen cell. Emily and I stared at her curiously wondering how the queen larva had got into the top super. The queen excluder was above the brood chamber and, we hoped, the queen had not gotten past to start laying in the supers.

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The queen cell looked partly torn away and whether that had happened when I pulled out the tightly fitted super frame or by a worker tearing down the cell, we could not tell. We marked the frame and carefully put it back for a further investigation of the hive.

I didn’t find any brood or further queen cells in the supers, but I did find several collections of pollen-packed cells, which is unusual. It seemed the workers were preparing to raise a special brood in the top super, and though the workers can move eggs, nectar and pollen around the hive this seemed a long way to carry an egg from the brood chamber. “Perhaps they heard us saying that we wanted to try queen rearing,” I joked to Emily.

A beginner beekeeper, Mark, was watching our discovery with interest and asked why the workers would hide the queen cell. “To keep it a secret from us,” I said, “Or more likely the queen who would tear it down.”

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Then it was time to go through the brood nest. Here there were only stores and brood, but no queen cells. Emily spotted the queen as I held up a frame, so I caged and marked her with a pink marking pen from Pat.

We closed up the hive. With only one queen cell hidden in the super, and now appearing partly damaged, this seemed a case of attempted supersedure rather than swarm. Emily and I have always let our bees get on with supersedure in the past, the workers know best when to replace a queen. Melissa and her hive were left to their royal secrets until next week.

In the artificially swarmed colony the still unnamed queen was also found and marked by Emily. Two queens now wear pretty pink crowns thanks to Pat’s pink queen-marking pen from Thornes. I wish they would make a glitter pen too.

Emily is mentoring new beekeepers for the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) and had already checked Queen Pepper’s hive with Mark. This left us time for tea and cake (Polish cake from Clare and home-made ginger cake from Emily) and a casual visit to Den’s hive.

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Den was puzzled about why his bees were making waves of honeycomb above the frames. This was ‘bee space‘, we explained. There was a gap, more than 8mm, between the top bars and the top of the box. The bees would fill up any gap bigger than 8-9mm with honeycomb. The importance of bee space demonstrated and lessons were almost done for the day.

From the apiary to the garden there were fewer butterflies than bees, and I was hoping to attract more winged visitors to our flower beds. A butterfly supper of brown mashed banana on a plate and sugar syrup in a jar was prepared. These were simple to make and, I thought, an ideal activity if you’re entertaining young nieces…

How to make a butterfly supper

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You will need: 

  • Plastic plate
  • String
  • Over-ripe brown banana
  • Decorative flowers

1. Pierce four holes in the plastic plate to pull through the string and tie handles on either side.

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2. Stick on plastic flowers to make the plate look pretty for butterflies.

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3. Mash a brown banana that butterflies love.

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How to make a butterfly sugar feeder

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You will need: 

  • Jam jar
  • String
  • Sugar syrup

1. Mix one part sugar to four parts water to make sugar syrup.

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2. Pierce a hole in the jam jar lid and poke through a brightly coloured kitchen cloth.

3. Pour the sugar syrup in the jar and screw on the lid so the cloth can absorb the syrup.

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4. Secure with garden string and/or elastic bands to hang upside down.

The butterfly feeding stations were hung up high in the flowering bush that is busy with bees. We’ve had no customers yet, but I’m hopeful.

So the bees don’t feel neglected in the garden, my niece had a bright idea a couple of weekends ago. She asked me to pick one of each flower to put on a saucer. We then drizzled the flowers in honey. “This is a bee bed,” she said proudly putting her creation on the flower bed wall. “For tired bees.”

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edit: my story of the worker moving the egg is anecdotal (see comments below) and pure guesswork as I can’t know for certain how a suitable egg got into the super for the bees to try and make a queen. Moving eggs is one theory I’ve heard over the years, laying workers is a possibility though these eggs would become drone not queens, or a small queen able to slip through the excluder after all or even a second queen in the hive still unseen…

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24 thoughts on “A beekeeper’s notes for June: secrets inside the hive

  1. What a lovely story about the princess egg. How else would it get there…unless a rogue worker laid it? Do you think it’s possible that a worker could carry an egg up there?

    • Good question, my story is all imagining of course ๐Ÿ˜‰ We know workers can carry eggs as well as pollen and nectar around the hive and I suppose an egg would weigh as much as nectar or pollen to carry into the supers. A laying worker might have laid an egg in the super but as the egg couldn’t be fertilised by the worker, the egg could only become a drone and that makes it unlikely a queen cell would be built around it. We might never find out the real story ๐Ÿ™‚

      • “Workers lay drones”…Arrrgh! I should know that, but I didn’t know that workers can carry eggs. In what circumstances do they move eggs?

      • I remember reading it in one of my bee books but will have to dig it out, and mentions among beekeepers (purely anecdotal, like my story in the post) that queen cells (and queen pupa) have been found above the excluder when the queen is down below. But how the egg gets into the super when there is an excluder in the hive is only guess work, I don’t know of any studies. This is the first time we’ve found a queen cell in the super in 6-7 years of keeping bees and we might have missed it if I hadn’t wanted to check the honey frames this weekend.

      • I’ve added an edit that I’m guessing, and suspect we’ll never really know how a queen cell got into the top super, which is quite far from the nest! Our bees continue to amaze and surprise even after all these years.

        Workers also move eggs to eat them (oophagy) if laid by a laying worker (perhaps that is why the queen cell looked damaged, again speculating) and it’s well known among beekeepers (I’ve heard it said many times at our apiary) that the bees are very good about hiding queen cells in the most obscure places! We joke it’s from us but it may be more likely the cells are placed out of view from the queen so she won’t tear them down!

  2. Love the way you write about our bees. I’m sure I see fewer butterflies now than when I was growing up. Your blog should be on the national curriculum to inspire more children to make pretty butterfly feeders.

  3. Pingback: Summer surpriseย  | Miss Apis Mellifera

  4. I love these wonderful feeding station ideas Emma.. and plan to make one with my Granddaughter in the holidays.. She will love it.. Beautiful photo’s you have shared too..

    The story at the beginning was a wonderful insight into the world of Bees within Royal chambers ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope the Princess is raised well ๐Ÿ™‚

    Love and Hugs.. Sue xx

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