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Two queen bees and one nervous volunteer: my day as a beekeeper’s assistant | COMMENTARY

A queen bee (center) is surrounded by worker bees in a hive in a lab at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Researchers are trying to breed bees resistant to disease and mites.
A queen bee (center) is surrounded by worker bees in a hive in a lab at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Researchers are trying to breed bees resistant to disease and mites. (Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Twenty thousand bees to my left and twenty thousand bees to my right. No Freddy Mercury, but two unhappy queens. The sweat from my forehead was dripping in my eyes making it hard to see, and it wasn’t hot out. Had I been kidnapped? Was this an effort to force me to reveal my deepest secrets? Was I about to be severely punished for some unremembered wrong?

No. I was willingly helping a friend, a beekeeper with a decade of experience, inspect two hives to make sure the queens were happy and busy. I had a white protective shirt and mesh hood covering my upper body and head but just jeans below. My friend had a small smoker to spray on the bees. It resembled incense burners at Mass. Since, to my knowledge, bees are not religious, I asked what the heck she was doing. She explained that smoke made the bees think the hive was on fire. Just like us, they would focus on retrieving valuables (nectar) instead of attacking the giant skin bags of water ripping their house to pieces. Frankly, it was small comfort.

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The hives were full of non-native Western Bees imported from Europe. I had no idea that honeybees are almost always invited guests from afar. There are over 4,000 species of native bees in the United States, almost all of which are great pollinators. They are not, however, honey producers, and, unlike imported bees, they are often picky about what they will pollinate- mostly limited to native plants. Indeed, young native bees hatch when the flowers they pollinate bloom. Although some are generalists and will pollinate broadly, most are specialists limited to particular plants. Native bees are solitary and don’t congregate in hives, with bumble bees a rare exception. Solitary bees build their own nests solely to lay eggs. Some nest underground and benefit from bare patches of ground. Foreign honeybees, however, live in hives that they fill with honeycomb. The honeycomb serves multiple purposes: It houses eggs, larvae, pupae in brood cells as well as honey and pollen for food.

Honey bees are quite happy in human made hives with removable frames, each containing a thousand perfectly formed hexagonal cells used for either laying eggs or storing food. Each hive needs (and will only tolerate) one queen. A happy queen will lay between 1,500 and 2,000 eggs a day during the summer, which means that 1,500 to 2,000 new bees will hatch on a rolling schedule about three weeks after the eggs are laid. The Queen makes her way from brood frame to brood frame laying eggs like crazy.

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We found lots of eggs and larvae and slowly dehydrating nectar on its way to becoming honey. We also found “queen cells.” Unlike the hexagonal shaped brood cells, the queen cells resemble peanuts. Often queen cells mean the hive is getting ready for a new queen. The creation of a new queen is a miracle. Worker bees choose a very young larvae- no more than 3 days old. They feed it special food, called Royal Jelly, in large quantities. The Royal Jelly is secreted from the glands of nurse bees. This super food allows the larvae to develop into a sexually reproductive female — a queen! The other larvae get a little Royal Jelly but mostly regular food, or “bee bread” a mixture of pollen and nectar. They become workers (females) or drones (males), depending on whether the queen lays a fertilized egg (worker) or unfertilized egg (drone).

I’m still sweating, but I haven’t been stung once thus far, much less hundreds of times. Plenty of bees are flying around, but most are wedded to the frames. We’ve been pulling out each frame in each hive; 48 frames to check. We find both queens, but the second one was in the last frame of the last box. I wonder if they are soon to be displaced because both hives had queen cells.

We stepped about 10 yards away and took off the protective gear. Since these are new hives, no honey will be harvested until next year. The next step is to check for mites in about a month. Maybe I won’t sweat so much.

Carl Gold is a recently certified Maryland Master Naturalist trainee and can be reached at cgold@carlgoldlaw.com.

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