Super Superorganisms

Honey bees are fascinating superorganisms. What does that mean exactly?!

In 1911, William Morton Wheeler, an American entomologist first described honey bees as “superoranisms” because the parts (worker bees, drones, and queen bees, etc.) work together and require each other for survival. This idea extends beyond the bees themselves and into the honeycomb and throughout the hive. The entire hive acts as an organism – needing each part to survive.

When eggs are laid – female worker bees and the queen bee are equal. It is what they are fed that determines if they are going to grow into a worker or a queen. This is decided based on what is needed.As worker bees grow up, they grow into different jobs – starting with caring for the young bees and cleaning the hive and then graduating to guarding the hive and foraging for food. Each of these changes comes with behavioral changes and physiological changes as well. (So fascinating – I could write a whole article about that.) What this means is that as these worker bees move through their roles, their body changes to make them more adept at fulfilling those roles.

The queen bee lays all the eggs for the colony. She can choose to lay a female or male egg but this is often decided for her by the cells that are provided to her – she is led around the hive and told where to lay by her worker bee caregivers. The larger cells are for drones, the smaller ones for worker bees. She does this job well – laying 1500-2000 eggs during the warmer months.

The drones are made perfectly for their job. They have large eyes to spot the queen in flight, large wings to catch up to her in the air. Their sole job is to mate with a queen from another hive to further the genetics of their hive. During the Spring and Summer, you can find drones in some abundance (up to 20% of the hive), however, come Winter – they’ll be kicked out to slim the colony down for survival. They do not perform an integral part in maintaining or working around the hive, so they have nothing to contribute outside of mating season. The queen will lay more drone eggs as the days get longer and the air gets warmer in the Spring.

The hive acts as the central system for the colony – it holds the food, it holds the brood, and it allows a safe place for the colony to return at night. The pollen stored in the cells provides protein, the nectar provides carbohydrates, and the brood area allows the queen to continue to lay the next generation of bees. The hive also hosts propolis collected from trees that acts as an antimicrobial, antibiotic for the hive.

Honey bees work together for survival. The hive survives because everybody does their part. This teamwork is an amazing thing.

Replacing A Queen

We are often asked how to replace a queen and although we’ve tried many ways and often times are doing things more quickly than the average small-scale beekeeper, we figured it was time to write a blog post about it.

There are many ways you can introduce a new queen to a colony and we’ll talk about some of those ways, however, I’ll start by suggesting that a push in cage is the most effective for the best chance of acceptance and queen survival.

A push-in cage is a wire cage made of 8-mesh hardware cloth – it can be easily made into a rectangular shape of any dimension that allows your queen the ability to lay eggs while staying protected by the cage from the bees who may not be ready to welcome her into their colony. The worker bees can continue to feed her through the cage and within a few days, the queen’s pheromones are carried throughout the colony and the bees will have accepted her as their queen.Image result for push in cage queen

Other methods for introducing queens:

  • Roller cage (this is what we use most frequently) – this offers the queen a protected area within her cage but does not allow her to get to work early on laying.
  • Honey dab – you dab some honey on the new queen to encourage the bees to clean her up – in doing so, they spread her pheromones and will take care of her.
  • Queen cages – there are so many types – but essentially they work by allowing the bees to eat through a candy to get to the queen. The theory is that by the time they get through the candy, the queen’s scent will be spread throughout the hive.
  • Straight introduction – this is something that we’ve seen people do, but don’t recommend it unless you’ve got access to a lot of queens. There’s a chance they’ll accept her, but there’s also a chance they won’t – at a higher percentage than some of your other options.

If you haven’t noticed, the biggest drive for queen acceptance is the scent given off by the queen. We’ve seen better luck with quick introduction when the queen is a sister of the previous queen for example. Each queen will smell unique and it’s important for the bees to accept her before she’s left on her own. If the bees do not want to accept a queen, you’ll see balling behavior where they create a large ball around the queen, heating her up (to death).

Best of luck!


Deformed Wing Virus

Deformed Wing Virus - Honey Bee

Deformed wing virus (DWV) is a highly viral disease transmitted by Varroa destructor. The disease is commonly found in colonies infested with mites. Deformed Wing Virus is regarded as deadly due to its ability to spread fast in any colony. It causes massive wing deformation in bees making it difficult for them to live normally. DWV which is regarded as a low-grade infectious disease is commonly triggered by mite infestations. It has a reputation for being massively destructive leading to the decimation of well-established colonies globally. The deformed wing virus is common in late summer and early fall. A high concentration of mites can be overwhelming for any bee colony.

DWV occurs when varroa mites which are external parasites feed on the hemolymph of both developing and mature bees after attacking them. Consequently; it reduces their lifespan drastically while spreading the deadly disease to the rest of the colony members. The Varroa mite can trigger the virus transmission from one infected bee to the entire colony within a very short span of time. Their vectored viruses are notorious at affecting honeybees immune systems hence leaving them exposed to risks of DWV. This wing deformity is a sign of a high viral load on the bees, and ultimately, bees need their wings to survive. Those with deformed wings cannot forage. 

The massive loss of bee colonies across the globe is commonly attributed to Varroa Mites and the viruses they carry – including DWV. These viruses triggers major queen failures in colonies. It is evident that Queen Failure leads to loss of colonies. Additionally, the virus can also be transmitted through severe weather conditions, predation, and foraging bees.

Although DWV diagnosis can only be done through laboratory tests, beekeepers should be on the lookout for obvious signs of DWV. A colony infected with DWV may exhibit the following symptoms;

  • Stunted/rounded abdomens
  • Paralysis of appendages
  • Learning impairment
  • Deformed/atrophied/shortened wings
  • Discoloring
  • Rounded abdomens
  • Wrinkled/twisted/distorted/misshapen wings
  • Unusual shrinking of bee population
  • Rejection of deformed adults by other members of the colony
  • Death of infected bees within 48hours

Even though DWV is incurable, beekeepers can deploy preventative measures such as the elimination of mite infestations, comb replacement, good sanitation, requeening and vigilance.

Deformed Wing Virus - Honey Bee
Honeybee with Deformed Wing Virus | by klaas de gelder


Drone Pheromone

Spring is the height of mating season for bees. A healthy hive emerges from the cold winter, builds up their population and has the drive to swarm and reproduce the colony. During this time, drone populations are high.

A drone is a male bee that is produced from an unfertilized egg. The main, and arguably only, purpose of the drone in a bee community is to mate with the queen. They do not defend the hive, as they do not have stingers, nor do they feed the community since they do not have body parts to collect nectar. It is effortless to spot a drone bee due to its larger eyes that look like a helmet, their bigger bodies, and long wings.


Drones produce a pheromone that attracts other drones flying in close range. This leads to the formation of drone congregation area (DCA). The diameter of DCA ranges from 30-200 meters and is always 15-40 meters above the ground. The DCA is selectively chosen to make it suitable for the drone to mate with virgin queens. For genetic diversity, one queen normally mates with up to 10-20 drones. There is always a competition among the drones in the fight to mate with the queen. The success of the drone to mate the queen depends on its speed and vision, which explains reason behind the bigger drone eyes.

Drone mandibular glands that secrete the pheromone are much smaller compared to those of the queen and the worker’s bees. The size of the glands also depends on the age of the drone. As soon as the drones are born, the secretory activity increases up to the third day. After the third day, the secretion process is constant up to the seventh. These glands, however, become inactive after nine days.

Similar to workers, drones show features that determine their acceptance in the bee colony. These features depend on their age and whether they belong to the colony or not. Mostly young drones of 7 days old are cleaned and fed by workers. On the other hand, old and sexually mature drones (usually average age of 23 days) are attacked, rejected and kicked out of the hive. The worker bees do this by starving the drones to weaken them after which they escort them to the hive exit and throw them out of the hive. The workers use chemical signals (pheromones) on the drone surface to distinguish drones of different ages.

Besides, drones always undergo nest mate recognition process at the hive entrance. This shows the presence of a similar recognition mechanism based on a cuticular pheromonal signal. The cuticular profile is sex-specific, making the worker bees distinguish between sexes using chemical cues.

Since bees use scents to communicate, the drone’s scent is easily identified to the other bees. Pheromonal communication happens throughout the hive and there are ranging scents for queens, brood, alarms, and all the other important aspects of the hive.

TBA Delegates Meeting

Also Published in the Texas Beekeepers Association Journal:

We had a great turnout at this year’s Delegates Meeting hosted in Conroe, Texas. There were so many things discussed and in an effort to convey what was accomplished by TBA and Local Club Leaders, here’s a quick summary of the day.

  1. TBA announced that the board voted to oppose the flea beetle being used as a method to control Chinese Tallow trees on the grounds that it is a valuable clean nectar source for pollinators all over the nation as well as the beekeeping industry as a whole at this point.
  2. The Real Texas Honey grant has been extended and is moving along slowly but surely.
  3. Tanya Phillips is forming a committee to decide whether or not TBA should pursue changes to HB 131 and if the answer is “yes” that committee will work to educate about the existing bill, survey beekeepers, and propose changes to the bill according to input.

Update since the meeting- The committee has been formed and is in discussions.

If you’d like some information about the current bee laws, TAIS has a great resource at https://txbeeinspection.tamu.edu/regulations/

  1. TBA Summer Clinic is June 30, 2018 and will be in Conroe, TX at the Lone Star Convention Center. TBA Convention will be in Temple November 8-10. Discussion of local events from the highly successful Central Texas Beekeeping School to the well attended workshop hosting Larry Connor – by clubs in East Texas. TBA keeps up with events on the events Calendar on the webpage as well as on the TBA Facebook page so stay tuned for more learning opportunities near you.

If you are interested in volunteering to help with events – contact Summer Clinic Volunteer Coordinator – Julie Norman at julie@juliescoops.com  or Ashley Ralph at ashley@primebees.com.

  1. TBA is looking for volunteers webmaster, bookkeeper, treasurer, and scholarship and grant administrators. If you’re interested in volunteering you can contact Lisa Dittfurth. TBA is working on a volunteer sign up form for the website so that volunteers can more easily sign up to help. Contact Vice-President, Lisa Dittfurth at dittfurths@gmail.com if you’re interested in volunteering for the above mentioned roles.
  2. Updates on Texas Honey Bee Education Association were made. This is an educational 501c3 that allows tax deductible donations. This entity’s board is appointed by the TBA board but may consist of anybody deemed qualified for the needs of the organization. THBEA is currently facilitating replacement nucs for beekeepers who had losses due to Hurricane Harvey.

6A – To continue the conversation that was started at last year’s convention – TBA is seeking to go from a 501(c)7 to a 501(c)5 to better reflect what the club actually does today. THBEA is set up as a 501(c)3 Educational foundation and can offer grants and scholarships that are in line with their mission (to educate about honey bees to keep it simple).

  1. TBA made an announcement that there will be upcoming bylaw changes for TBA – these changes are necessary to bring TBA up to the modern age regarding communication, elections, and to better reflect the mission of the TBA’s direction as an agricultural non-profit.

A committee was formed to put together a proposal for bylaw changes that will be published for feedback upon completion of a full draft.

  1. TBA received positive feedback on how much people enjoy reading the TBA Journal. There was some concern raised that not enough people read it or that TBA may need to explore other options of communicating in addition to the journal.

Update since the meeting – TBA had some volunteers (thank you Dodie Stillman, Michelle Boerst) to help get the valuable content within the journal and beyond out to members through a wider variety of mediums. So, look for some good things to come in the near future!

As a side note, you can access all the TBA journal archives here – http://texasbeekeepers.org/journal/

  1. Ruth Ramos gave an update on the Honey Queens and Ambassadors. These young men and women talk around the state educating people about honey bees. The sheer numbers of communities and individuals that they reach is impressive and we definitely all benefit from their efforts.

We broke for Lunch where each Director for TBA talked with their clubs. This was an opportunity for small group sharing about the different programs that are working (or not working) within clubs. We were given some great feedback for how to improve TBA through communication, education, and sharing of resources.

Update since the meeting – TBA is working on a “Club Starter Resource” to share with clubs. Local club leaders from around the state have come together to help consolidate some of the key aspects for starting a club from technology to bylaws. Once completed, this resource will be made available for TBA members.

So many clubs around the state are doing interesting and fun events to promote their clubs, their youth, their schools, and bees in general. A few highlights were the beginning of the Ambassador program by a couple of young men who were interested in educating people like the Honey Queens do – very cool. There’s also clubs doing Honey Tastings for the public to help raise interest and awareness as well as raise money for clubs, research, or programs.

Update since the meeting – Because the sharing from club to club was such a big hit, TBA is looking for ways to continue fostering this sharing throughout the year. Based on feedback, we are exploring email newsletters, Facebook interactions, updates on our website, and of course the TBA Journal. We’ve recently revamped a group on Facebook called “Texas Local Beekeepers Associations Leadership” to help bring more club leaders together and share information in real time. If you’re interested in joining this group, you can email ashley@primebees.com for an invitation

It was a very productive day and it ended with a very long board meeting to continue to discuss the direction TBA is heading this year. We’re excited to have the feedback as well as the devoted membership to help make a positive impact on TBA and our membership this year!