Methods of Making Increase Colonies

October 2014

Conflict Reigns

by John Connor


Much has been made of the tremendous cooperation and high level of communication honey bees demonstrate by their ability to operate a complicated social community without an elected leader selected by the masses or a ruler appointed through some system of inherited power. Thomas Seeley of Cornell University has described the collaborative decision-making process swarming bee colonies use in making one of the most important decisions of their life—determining which nest cavity will the bees select to use for their home. The decision is critical because European honey bee races rarely leave a nest for a new one, and then, only when they experience something extremely unsuitable in their nest. Scout bees return to the swarm clustered in a tree or some other structure and report their findings. Other bees are recruited to inspect the nest site and share samples of material determined by evolutionarily determined criteria, then report back on the location through a dance and data sharing (samples of materials from the inside of the nest). Debate occurs here, where the different factions argue by dancing for the location that is best suited as the swarm’s new colony. Eventually, the different locations are evaluated by more bees, the colony comes to a general consensus, one site is selected, and the swarm flies off to their new home. Scout bees advocating for another location are not killed, but gently held back or given a head butt to extinguish their dance behavior. The queen, while present in the swarm, does not participate in this decision, dispelling the illusion that there is a single-ruler bee in the hive that makes critical policy rulings.

Human perception has not always understood this group dynamic. Over the ages, humans viewed the queen bee first as a king and then as a virgin queen, ruler of the hive. As human acceptance of human sexuality became more commonplace by the scientists of Western culture, so did human acceptance of sexuality between queens and drones become more widely understood. Recently we have researched and developed a much more detailed understanding of the role of conflict and competition within the bee colony. It is not always as clean and neat as the decision to select a new nest site.

Queens that want to kill each other

Nowhere in the hive is the role of individual conflict more evident than in the battles to the death of young virgin queens. As I discussed in last month’s column, the first young queen to emerge in a colony instinctively searches for other virgin queens with the intention of stinging them to death. Unless stopped by worker bees, this sororicide includes not only all emerged young queens, but also all unemerged queens in still sealed queen cells.

Young queens patrol the frame surface, staying under their worker sisters to find evidence of developing cells. This behavior is one reason why unmated queens are so difficult to locate in a colony. Not only is their abdomen unswollen with developing eggs, but their behavior keeps them moving rapidly on the comb surface, often under a thick layer of worker bees that appear to be hiding her, but may simply be in the way of this strong young queen bee behavior.

Emerged queens and unemerged queens still in their cells communicate with each other with sound waves (also audible to humans) that create unique vibrations on the comb and help the emerged queen to locate her unemerged sisters. Here is a summary of this event from Prof. Gundren Koeniger et al’s1 detailed account in their upcoming book:

The development of daughter queens in the queen cells ends shortly after the mother queen and primary swarm leave the nest. In all cavity-dwelling honey bee species studied to date (2014), A. cerana, A. mellifera and A. koschevnikovi, the queen that emerges first starts piping by pressing her vibrating thorax on the surface of the comb (Otis et al. 1995). The fully-developed queen sisters that are still in their queen cells respond with their quacking sound. As long as the piping and quacking continues, the other developed, but not-yet-emerged queens remain in their cells and are fed by worker bees through small slits at the lower end of the queen cell. If a secondary swarm is issued with the first-emerging virgin queen, additional queens will emerge. Now, the piping and quacking process begins again until a tertiary or later swarm leaves. Secondary and other swarms will cease leaving the colony when there are
not enough worker bees left to form another swarm. At this time, the next young queen to emerge will proceed to eliminate all of the remaining, “surplus” queens. She will do this by killing her sisters
in the cell or fighting them until the death if they do emerge. The signal (likely a pheromone) that triggers the fight between young queens has not yet been identified (Pflugfelder and Koeniger 2004). Queen recognition and fighting behavior seems to be similar in several honey bee species. Pflugfelder et al (2004) showed that young queens of A. florea were attacked and fought with queens of A. mellifera and A. cerana.

When I was teaching a class at the University of Maryland, a researcher placed several frames of ready-to-emerge queen cells into an incubator at the U of M bee laboratory to be held overnight before being moved into nucleus hives for mating. Bees often teach beekeepers a cruel lesson in honey bee mathematics, as we discovered the next morning. All the queen cells had been chewed open along the side of the cells, and the queens inside stung by the precocious sister that made her search for sisters, chewed these holes herself and stung each sister. Prior to this experience I believed that the queen somehow marked each cell or started its destruction only to have the worker bees complete the deathly deed. This experience showed me how a single queen is able to accomplish all this carnage.

These cells were ...