In times when some beekeepers are reporting less-than-impressive retinue behavior, that “She is the center of our universe” attention given to the queen by worker bees, I was pretty happy to see these workers fussing over their newly-marked queen. (I usually try to return queen close to the brood area, but by the end of a hot afternoon, I just wasn’t following my own good rules!) The bees remained in this position near the opening of the inner cover while I ran for my camera, ran someplace else for my camera(!), got it turned on, focused, etc…it must have been three or four minutes, and still there they were on the top of the frames, antennae and mandibles working madly.
Queen mandibular pheremone (QMP) is the substance responsible for keeping workers riveted on the queen. This is critical for the queen’s (and therefore the colony’s) survival, as she requires care and protection in order to crank out her annual contribution of 200,000 or so eggs. Virgin queens secrete a minimal amount of this magic chemical brew, and the amounts increase as the queen flies and attracts drones. It positively spikes by the time she begins producing eggs. (Larry Connor gave a nice basic explanation queen pheremones in the February 2013 issue of Bee Culture magazine called “Understanding Queen Pheremones?”, if you’re ready to dive into the details!) I was particularly interested to read that the lessening or lack of QMP in a hive can trigger a robbing response in nearby colonies, something I suspected in a couple of hives I lost late last summer.
As for the rumor of reduced retinue behavior, I’ve heard people speculate variously about poor mating, inadequate nutrition, disease, environmental chemicals…the possibilities seem endless. Does anyone out there have a satisfying explanation? For while I’m grateful for this one good queen, I’d like to keep my eyes on the horizon.