Yesterday horns rang out across the land. Or, that’s how I imagine the Montshire Museum proclaimed that their honeybee colony had installed a new queen. It was the culmination of a shift of power that almost didn’t happen, that could have spelled doom for the bees, if not for the careful attention of the Montshire staff.
A couple weeks ago, the Montshire’s live animal specialist, Lorenz Rutz, saw that the colony was preparing to swarm. Through the observation glass, a humming mob of workers and drones acted as if they were scrambling for a front seat to the big event.
And the occasion? Their queen was taking her leave.
As Rutz explains, their swarming is the first sign of a colony’s royal transition, which typically happens once a year. “For bees to multiply and make new colonies, one colony has to reach a certain size, a certain pressure, and then divide,” he says. “So the queen who built this colony took half of her population and left to go find a new place to colonize.”
It’s a bee’s version of setting sail on the Mayflower.
The now-queenless bees who were left behind had to act quickly to replace Her Majesty. They divided into eight groups, Rutz observed, and each group chose a female egg to care for and feed, attempting to raise one of eight possible new queens.
“As those eight queens hatched, the bees began the selection process,” says Rutz. “It’s a little like our presidential election process.”
No, seriously. The bees began to caucus! After a few days, the colony reached a consensus and elevated their new queen. (As for the losers, they were driven from the hive. Brutal, right?)
That's her right in the middle. All hail.
But the new queen’s reign was short. About a week after she'd taken power and begun the ritual process of mating and laying eggs, she was nowhere to be found. Rutz grew concerned. There’s always a risk, he says, that when she flies off to mate, some accident befalls her and she doesn’t return. A colony unexpectedly without a queen could collapse.
“Fortunately, I keep bees at home,” Rutz says. “And I had one young queen about the same age. I transplanted her to this hive yesterday, along with half of her colony.”
To avoid the risk of revolt against the transplant queen, Rutz also took the current colony and moved them to one of his hives at home. “They’ll be fine. They’re joining a much larger colony where interlopers are welcome.”