It's spring! The days are getting warmer and bees can be seen buzzing about in front of our hive. Forager bees head out in search of food (nectar and pollen) and water sources and return with brightly colored pollen packed into their “pollen baskets”. With temperatures in the 50's, sunny, and not to breezy, it's time to do our first full hive inspection of the new year. We have been patiently waiting all winter to take a look inside and this inspection will allow us to see just how well this colony has overwintered.
A few puffs of smoke from the smoker and we pop off the top. The bees appear gentle which is a good sign since past experience has shown us that an aggressive hive is a queen-less hive. The bee population/cluster looks fairly good and we do not see signs of disease or pest. As we continue to work our way through the hive, we will be looking for the queen along with eggs, larva and capped brood. All signs that our girl is doing her job.
Now we are faced with a decision, do we re-queen our hive or keep our existing queen? So let's look at the role of the queen and reasons why you may re-queen a hive. The queen is the matriarch and only female capable of laying fertilized eggs. She is the heart of the hive and without her the hive will fail to thrive. Her only role is to lay eggs, laying between 1500-2000 eggs a day. She emits pheromones which controls the bees-behavior in the hive and gives the hive its identity, but she makes no decisions. She is cared for by worker bees who tend to all her needs and a queen can live for 5+ years. Compare this to worker bees who live for 6-7 weeks in the spring and summer and up to 4 to 6 months in the fall and winter. If she starts to falter in her egg laying duties, becomes to old, has diminished pheromone output, or becomes diseased, the hive will replace her by a procedure known as “supersedure”
Many beekeepers do not wait for the queen to “age out” and for the hive to re-queen itself, instead opting to replace their queen every year or two. Older queens tend to swarm, taking 50%-60% of the hive with them. In nature, swarming is natural, but considered a loss by many beekeepers. Re-queening with a new young queen seems to reduce the need to swarm. Egg laying is more prolific the first year or two, thus older queens lay less eggs, more drones and the brood pattern may be spotty. This will effect the strength of the hive as well as honey production. Another reason to re-queen a hive is to introduce new genetics since a hive that re-queens itself transfers the genetics of the mother queen to her daughter.
Our queen was a “banked” queen. She was pulled from a hive and replaced with a new queen by a fellow beekeeper who re-queens his hives every year. But instead of killing this “old queen”, the beekeeper kept her for “just in case someone needed her”. That was the case for us with the sudden loss of our queen late last summer.
Spring is a good time to re-queen since the colony is usually smaller and it's normally easier to locate the existing queen. Some beekeepers re-queen in the fall with the idea of having a strong young queen for the fallowing springs buildup.
So, it appears that our hive has made it through the winter. The activity out front is fierce and all is well inside. This queen saved our hive last summer. Do we save her?