Queen Elizabeth and the bees

Queen bee on honeycomb
Queen bee ‘crowned’ with a dot (Boba Jaglicic, Unsplash)

While observing expressions of public affection and admiration for Queen Elizabeth II from afar, I began to muse about other queens. Queen bees in my hives.

They shouldn’t be called monarchs by any stretch in the meaning of royalty. But I am struck by a correspondence between the late queen and insect queens. The steadfast duty to serve in one great role for society’s sake. Without that service, the institution of a constitutional monarchy or the life inside hives cannot survive.

But here’s a wonder. A queen bee isn’t born from a royal lineage, like the House of Windsor, and doesn’t have a unique genome. She is what she is because the egg that made her was laid in a special cell and workers fed her a special diet as a larva. Any egg can potentially make a queen in the process of supersedure to ensure succession where a queen is failing. It’s more like making a new Dalai Lama (although always male) than the heir to a European throne. It has none of the mystique of a royal family tracing its roots to an ancient founder. The current Lama and Tibetan monks discover his successor as a child and turn him into an extraordinary individual with a momentous life as a spiritual leader and diplomat. Somewhat similar to when nurse bees care for a precious larva in a queen cell.

Aside from rambling on about royalty, poring over frames of honeycomb covered in busy insects gives me a cast of mind about the tranquility of hive life. It’s neither feudal nor communist, but still a highly organized community. Individual honeybees don’t have the freedom of solitary bee species, but neither are they stuck at the bottom of a rigid caste system. A new worker bee starts with humble jobs and transfers to other occupations, such as nursing, honey-making and guarding the hive. Finally, she graduates to flying for foraging outside for nectar and pollen. There’s no jealousy or conflicts from competition in the patriotic fervor to benefit the community.

This post sounds anthropomorphic for a biology professor, but I can’t find better words to express the industry of honeybees, which the mind of the hive organizes. They have an admirable society, even if not one we can or want to emulate.

Flight of a Russian Queen

Something attracting honeybees

Since early March my Russian bee colony has grown like gangbusters. With no sign of the dreaded mite, Varroa destructor, they are living up to their reputation for resistance. They have already filled most frames with honey and nectar plus yellow and orange pollen to feed larvae as bee bread.  

Last week a shadow fell over my optimism. A patch of several hundred bees crawled on the ground near the hive. I guessed they were attracted by a queen, possibly a recently hatched virgin. But gently turning the heap with my bee brush I only found workers and a few drones. That evening they were gone but the next morning reappeared at same location. This repeated for three more days. Each time I never saw a queen despite great care.

What did it mean? Healthy and proved so by buzzing me. No chemical attractant or pesticide in the grass. Honeybees don’t nest in the ground.

Searching again today, I found a queen, unmistakable with short wings and long abdomen striped black and amber instead of tan. I suppose I missed her before, perhaps hidden at the base of grass stems. A pity because she was sluggish from hunger outside the hive for days. She might have recovered if I found her sooner to replace in the hive. But perhaps she was already weak onleaving with a small swarm, only able to fly a few yards.

I knew there was a risk that the hive might become queenless because it is bloated and this is swarm season. But I wasn’t sure I found the reigning monarch.

The next 30 minutes I annoyed tens of thousands of resident bees by examining every frame in all the boxes. On a warm day, I began to cook inside my beesuit. The boxes were so laden I struggled to lift them. I slowly pored over the masses of crawling insects as squadrons flew around my head, vainly searching for a queen.

Although queenless, the hive is far from dead—yet. I urgently need to find someone who can supply a new queen to save the colony. Uneasy lies the head who seeks a wearer of the crown.

Next Post: Eastern Screech Owl

Waxworms make Holey Shopping Bags

A shameless boast, I take fewer than a dozen plastic shopping bags home from the grocery store each year (a trillion are manufactured). Discarded in garbage for burial in landfill, this non-compostable stuff awaits a post-Homo sapiens archeologist who learns how Anthropocene people trashed their planet. But beekeepers have another option for disposing of polyethylene. A dead hive. Not really practicable, but the idea connects with a new channel for Earth care.

When a bee colony deserted the hive, I saved the frames containing honey, boarded the entrance, and didn’t return to clean the interior for several weeks.

I was gobsmacked when I opened the boxes. The combs eaten to shreds were festooned in silken threads. Wax moths had snuck inside.

Galleria mellonella
One hungry waxworm (Pixabay)

Greater wax moths (Galleria mellonella), originating in Asia and now worldwide, depend on beehives to reproduce. Their eggs turn into plumptious caterpillars gorging on beeswax, and only a strong colony can beat back the invaders. Along with mites and hive beetles, wax moths are the bane of beekeepers.

A few years ago, biologists noticed holes appearing in plastic bags used to collect waxworms. Trained to be inquisitive, they set up an experiment, finding the plastic was eaten at a rate of 2 holes per worm-hour. Their results were published and another paper appeared in Current Biology.

They spun some in a blender to test the effects of caterpillar mush on plastic. It degraded. So, the plastic was digested, not just chewed. It is likely that bacteria in their gut were responsible, and the process probably benefited them by generating energy for metabolism. The long chains of hydrocarbon that make polyethylene turned into ethylene glycol, a substance used as an antifreeze in automobile radiators that is rather toxic to us, although it degrades quickly in soil.

There are unrelated bacteria that digest plastic, albeit slowly. Neither they nor waxworms can consume the mountains of plastic we generate, but that a synthetic compound formerly thought to be stable for eons is biodegradable gives hope that genetic engineering will develop a more efficient agent. Perhaps that can soften absolutist objections some people have toward GMOs.

New Post: He who Pays the Pipeline Calls the Tune

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