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A close encounter with a queen bee

In this blog, I wish to share my personal encounter with a queen bee, which shook me up and brought my understanding and love for bees and nature to a deeper level.

A queen bee, after being born, leaves the hive and goes on a wedding flight to mate in the air to become fertile and start laying eggs. The rest of her life she will lay eggs till she dies and to a certain extent controls the behavior of the entire colony. The wedding flight is normally the only time a queen leaves the hive on her own.

Well this is at least what all bee literature will tell you...

Now my story...

This specific queen was born in August 2020 (a queen bee can live up to five years). She raised a huge colony last year, located in the heart of Ghent @Duivelsteen. The bees survived the winter, but I noticed since March dwindling activity at the bee hive entrance. Due to other priorities and much rain in April, May, I only opened the hive end of May. To my amazement, the hive was empty of all bees, but one... The queen was still wondering around in the hive. This is a already a very strange situation, it seemed like the queen had stopped laying eggs. I noticed that on her back she had a large piece of sticky beeswax which was hampering her in her movement a lot. My theory is that this prevented her to enter the cells to lay new eggs, so the entire colony dwindled till she remained as last survivor. I do not know how long she survived alone in the hive, but she must have gone through hard times.

The above picture shows the queen with the sticky substance on her back between the head and the wings (covering her blue seal, which is normally clearly visible).

I managed to put her in a small cage and remove the sticky beewax from her back. I introduced her into a new colony which I made a day later. Worker bees need to accept the new queen, and this takes time. So as a beekeeper you put the queen in a small cage for the other bees to familiarize with her (otherwise the worker bees can kill her straight away). So a couple of days passed with her being inside the cage for the other bees to get to know her. And this is when weird things happened...

I went back to check up on that hive. I removed the top cover and the queen was still in the cage, but it seemed that the worker bees had accepted her. So I removed the queen from the cage. But where the queen would normally go deeper inside the hive, to my amazement she decided to take off and fly away. This hive was on a new location, so this queen had no idea where she was and without her, the colony and herself are lost. So there I sat watching the hive, feeling utterly stupid and guilty to let her fly off... Gone she was...

I closed the hive back in order to keep the other bees warm. All the other bees remained in the hive.

I sat there for 10 minutes observing my 'failure'. and brooding about my 'stupid' action.

But to my amazement I noticed her coming back. She was flying at eye level. It seemed like she was observing the surroundings.

Seeing a queen bee flying alone is very rare experience even for experienced beekeepers. The sound she makes is a tone lower than that of a worker bee and yet still not as deep as that of a drone bee (male bee).

There is a certain elegance, gracefulness in the way that she was flying. It seemed like she very well knew what she was doing.

I observed her in full amazement for the next couple of minutes, still realizing the situation was hopeless as there was no way I would be able to catch her in flight. And then suddenly she came flying straight up to me. Still at eye level, she started gently circling around me for about half a minute. At that point I was more or less flabbergasted, and could barely move from the experience feeling nailed to the ground. It felt as if she was trying to tell my something.

She then flew back and forth for a while to finally land on a nearby bush.

Any beekeeper would now rush and have the immediate reflex to catch her, as she is the only chance the hive could survive. I did not feel like this, so I decided not to capture her. Instead I gently presented my finger. She climbed on and stayed there for a couple of seconds to then again fly off into the blue sky...

After I had processed what just happened, I sat there again with a droopy face.

I am sure how you can relate how I felt, that I now had missed the opportunity again to catch her. And yet, somehow it felt like i had done the exact right thing. I called a friend beekeeper explaining this amazing experience. Its good to have friends that do not judge and instead listen to what happens and to which you can share this amazing experience.

I remained in front of the hive for the next 2 hours, looking around hoping to find her again. The small hive only had one small opening the size of a bee. (to avoid robbing from a neighboring hive). The queen had left the hive when I opened the top. She did not know the entrance of the hiv,e so no way she would get inside.

At that time it was already 20h30 in the evening, so I gave up, and with a deep sigh went home....

Today I went back to hive, figuring out how to 'correct my mistakes'. I had taken 2 frames of closed brood (larvae before they are born as bee) from a strong hive, which now had some bees taking care of the brood, but no queen...

So I opened the hive again, checking up if by any chance the bees would have started to try to raise a new queen, but no...

And there, to my amazement , then I saw her crawling around between the other bees. My heart skipped beats.. To me, a complete miracle, she had managed to come back and find the entrance of the hive again. How did she manage this...

This queen and her behavior has shook me up in so many ways... She has witnessed her own colony dwindle till she was left alone, she managed to survive on her own in a hive (I don't know for how many days). She was introduced to a new hive, but instead flew away, (to go on a second wedding flight ???) to later come back, observe the surroundings, observe me and fly away a second time. She managed to get back in the hive, through this tiny entrance (no idea when or how she managed).

The only question that now remains is if she will start again laying eggs to raise a new colony?

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