Looking for Queens

A few weeks ago, the fellow who works with the bees here at the farm invited me to join him as he checked the hives.  He recommended I get up early and meet him to check their progress, perhaps as a sort of consolation for the sting I got on the face the other day helping him move hives. (I wasn’t worried about it but, as he predicted, insect venom has some regional differences and my face puffed up for a few days.)

In any event, I got up early a few weeks ago and he never arrived.  I took the opportunity to take some great pictures of the farm in the early morning.

Facing South early in the morning

Facing East in the early morning

Today though, Piero returned and we got the chance to look through the hives.  The deal is that it’s been a really slow year for the bees because of all the rain we’ve been having.  One of the key flowering periods for honey production is around the time the Acacia trees bloom, which is just passing now.  (You can see Acacia trees in bloom to the left in the picture above with the fence.)  They’re saying this is the coldest and wettest May in 200 years here and though I have nothing to compare to, Piero says the bees are way behind.
Opening the hiveBees!

As he opened each hive, it was clear that the bees are still working on growing the hive rather than making a lot of honey.  In the photo you can see the comb with all the little capped holes.  Those holes are full of eggs.  I learned that the larvae of each of the different types of bees in the hive (workers, drones and queens) all have different sizes and shapes so the comb is not always completely regular and you can tell how they are prioritizing laying.  In the bottom right corner, you can see the light reflecting off the part of the comb with honey in it… clearly a small fraction.

Queen bee

Because there was very little honey to see, we set about checking each hive for queens.  The queens can be produced by the hive itself (we found several queen larvae), but if a new queen hatches in a hive still under the reign of her mother she’s likely to be killed or, as she escapes, draw part of the hive away with her.  Many of the hives didn’t have queens, which Piero assures me is ok.  The hives with queens, however, where clearly much more vital, had built significantly more comb structure, and overall seemed calmer as we opened them up.  Each queen was marked with nail polish, a different color for each year they hatch.  He was particularly preoccupied about the queens in their last years of life (apparently they live to 4 or 5 years old), hoping to catch newly hatched heirs before the dynasty was interrupted.  As you might imagine, even with a dab of nail polish my untrained eyes rarely caught a queen before he’d turned the comb back and forth and replaced it in the hive.  Can you spot the queen in the photo? Her blue spot means she’s 2 years old.