The queen has one primary job and that is to lay eggs, as many as 2000 per day. She also produces pheromones that are spread by the workers throughout their home. These serve as signals as to who is a member of that colony and also communicate to the workers that the queen is healthy. While she is referred to as, “the queen”, honeybee society is not a monarchy and is actually a democracy where each of the workers has a voice. If the queen is not producing sufficient eggs or pheromones, whether that’s because she is aging, diseased, injured, or just didn’t mate properly to fill her spermatheca (a scientific term for the sperm sac), the workers will decide to make a new queen. They do this by forming a longer, peanut-shaped cell around an egg and then feeding that larva only royal jelly. Once the workers are confident they have a new, mated queen, they will form a ball around the old queen and heat her to death; beekeepers refer to this as “balling.”

On my most recent hive inspection, I wanted to see how the bees were responding to the honey super I had added three weeks earlier. Our young neighbor, Jones, joined me and, unfortunately, was stung towards the end. He handled it very bravely! I have since bought a spare veil that he or Marc can wear to protect them when I am angering the bees. I discovered that more bees had moved into the super and appeared to have stored some honey in a few cells, but, by and large, there was little comb construction occurring there. The brood nest, on the other hand, was packed with bees. I found the beginning of a queen cell on one of the first frames. I quickly removed the cell, thinking that perhaps the bees still had swarming in mind. This, I later learned, was a potentially grave error for the wee democracy, since I did not know at that point if the queen were still alive and well. Removing a queen cell is removing the only hope that colony has to create a new queen if there is something amiss with the old one.

The most important part of a hive inspection is determining if the colony is queen-right, which means that it has a laying queen. The best way to do this is by finding eggs in cells, which means that the queen was alive and laying within the past three days. I have a really hard time seeing the eggs, even while wearing my reading glasses, and am learning that I need to find a solution to this. I tend to use the presence of uncapped brood as my surrogate, but that gives a much longer time-frame of about nine days since the queen was known to be laying eggs.

I mistakenly focused on swarming as the reason for creating these queen cups, without thinking that there are other reasons for making them. Not fully grasping the possibilities of what I had done, I finished the inspection finding neither the queen nor eggs. I thought the lack of space was the issue and proceeded to add the syrup feeder back as a means of stimulating wax production so they could fill out the super above. It was only once I posted to the San Diego Beekeepers Association page on Facebook and asked for some recommendations that I realized the democracy might be in crisis, and I had just removed their best chance to maintain it.