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Inside the hive

A bee colony makes its decisions collectively

WARDSBORO—Jeff Battaglini has painted his hives with different motifs like Punisher skulls, large honeybees, and orange honeycombs.

The colorful subjects are whimsical — but the beekeeper says they also help the bees identify the hives they live in.

In a hive, the queen is the egg factory.

“She’s not this royalty,” he said. “She is an egg-laying machine, laying between 800 to 1,200 eggs a day for two or three years.”

A queen is identified by her pheromones, Battaglini said. These chemicals control a variety of behaviors of bees throughout the hive.

The queen is the only one in the hive to feed on royal jelly, which is rich in protein, he said. The journey from egg to maturity takes about 20 days for a queen. Female worker bees mature in 21 days; male drones, about 24 days, he explained.

At day 20, the queen leaves on her mating flight to the “drone congregation,” where she mates with 18 to 24 drones from different hives, Battaglini explains, noting that this behavior helps with hive diversity.

Around day 30, the queen starts laying eggs, and the cycle begins anew.

When the hive becomes too big, the bees “swarm.” According to Battaglini, a portion of the colony will instinctively leave the hive and start a new one. The bees that stay behind continue the original hive with stored resources.

“They very altruistically say, ‘OK, we’re going to leave enough resources home here for you kids to raise another queen, and Mom is going to take all these workers and we’re going to go start another apartment somewhere else,’” Battaglini said.

Swarming isn’t really cost-effective for beekeepers, but it’s also a sign of a healthy colony, Battaglini said.

If something happens to the queen and a hive doesn’t get a new one, often a worker — one of the queen’s daughters — steps up and starts laying eggs.

The problem, however, is that she’s not laying fertilized eggs, Battaglini said.

Hives can re-queen themselves if their current queen dies, he said. Sometimes hives will also boot a queen if she’s not strong enough or becomes sick.

“The queen just gets blamed for everything,” he said. “The queen doesn’t make any decisions. That colony is a super organism that is making the decisions collectively.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #518 (Wednesday, July 10, 2019). This story appeared on page A3.

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