The queen was in the parlor, eating bread and honey

I attended our Virginia State Beekeepers Association Fall 2019 meeting at the Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, Virginia, held the first Saturday in November. The theme this year was all about queens, as we had two wonderful speakers discuss their research: Heather Matilla and Alison McAfee. Posting this at the end of November seems to bookmark the month rather nicely.

Title slide for one of the talks at the VSBA 2019 Fall Meeting

Well-mated queens produce the busiest bees

Heather, or Dr. Mattila of Wellesley College, spoke first. She is the Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, and discussed her research on the extreme polyandry (multiple matings) of the species Apis, including our honey bees. Apparently this is unusual and rather unique in nature. Our Apis Mellifera (honey bee) queens mate with an average of 12 drones (and up to 20 or 30), while the large Apis Dorsota in Asia mates with an average of 60 males (wow!).

As you might expect, this behavior is of benefit to the bees. Heather compared colonies with a queen artificially inseminated based on a single drone against colonies with a queen inseminated based on multiple (15) drones. The multi-drone colonies showed better disease resistance, brood viability, nest temperature stability, and overall a greater fitness.

It turns out different lines from drones are more likely to specialize in foraging, undertaking, dancing, or other activities. Of particular importance is the scouting, foraging, and dancing required to gather food, which single-drone colonies particularly struggle with. Multi-drone colonies benefit from the mix of specialization, making for a healthier colony.

Queen Forensics: Using Biomarkers to Help Diagnose Queen Failure

Alison spoke next. She is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the North Carolina State University, and is researching biological markers in queens to look for indications of queen failure. Our queens are often shipped long distances, and undergo various stressors including temperature swings. She tested queen shipments from various breeders, and found that some queens experience large temperature swings during shipment. This affects the health of the queen and the eventual colony. She has also shown that drones, including their sperm, are very sensitive to heat, much more so than workers or queens.

So if biological markers can be found that indicate queen viability, it would be quite useful. Her team has made some progress in identifying specific protein markers, so the approach looks promising so far.

Hardworking bees need pollen!

Heather spoke again in the afternoon, on the importance of pollen, which provides most of a colony’s nutrients. She investigated this with bumblebees, which was an interesting topic in and of itself.

Bumblebees tend to be less organized than the more social honey bees. The queen keeps the hive in check in park through bullying, and larva in the center of the nest are often better fed (read: more pollen) than those toward the edges. The better fed bumbles tend to be larger and better foragers. Similar results have been found with honey bees, where colonies stressed for pollen produce fewer and less healthy worker bees.

Heather also suggested that getting a bumblebee hive is a great experience, so I may look to do this in the spring. One company, for anyone interested, is

Finding the odorant cues that stimulate hygienic behavior

Alison gave the fourth talk with another discussion about biological markers, this time odorant cues for finding hygienic bees. Her team has found that two compounds, beta-ocimene (found in basil) and oleic acid (found in olive oil), seem to induce hygienic behavior in the workers.

How colonies use pollen outside of summer flows

Heather finished the day with another discussion of pollen. Bees are the only animal, other than perhaps penguins, that cluster to generate warmth in the winter. Bees need pollen during winter to maintain their fat and protein stores and feed young larva. Winter bees, with the right food available, are rather ageless until spring hits.

Nurse bees tend to move only a few inches (2-5 cm) to obtain pollen, so if you use pollen patties Heather says they should be as close as possible to the brood.

The queen was in the parlor, eating bread and honey

Our line for today’s title appears in the second verse of the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence. The rhyme likely originated in the 18th century, though the exact origin and meaning are unclear. In an early printing in 1744, the common line “four and twenty blackbirds” was shown as “four and twenty naughty boys,” which confuses the matter further. It was a common amusement in the 16th century to place live birds in a pie so that they would fly out when the pie was cut.

In any case, it seems a fine title for a post on queen research discussed at a recent conference, especially with the word “honey” right there in the title.

May you prosper and find honey.

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