Friday, June 12, 2009

Cannibalism and Nursemaids

I was away from the house for about 5 hours today, and even so, I watched the bees in the observation hive on about 6 separate occasions for an hours total. Really, I was meant to live with bees. I spent a good hour at Home Depot last night selecting the tubing that would feel best on their feet, the plumbing joint that would work best to link the tubing to the hive, and new clips to keep the glass sides steady on the hive. I spent an hour, imagining my feet as bee feet and imagining what surface (copper - foam - plastic - pvc) would give best grip and feel best. Next thing, I'll be knitting them little layettes for the brood.

The bees were placed in the observation hive on Wednesday morning at the farm. The queen immediately started laying eggs on the left hand side of the top frame, then moved over to the right and began laying eggs again, this time amidst the workers. The workers quickly positioned themselves over the cells with eggs in them.

It hasn't mattered so much before exactly what the life cycle of the bee was - there has always been time and enough bees for a decent start. This time, with the tiny little cluster, it matters a lot. So in the middle of the night last night, I got up, went on-line and did a little research.

It seems that when the bees have no protein stored in the hive (in the form of pollen), the queen will lay sacrificial eggs meant to be cannibalized by workers to make food for the developing brood. Nice. That must have been what the queen was doing laying eggs in an isolated part of the frame.

Also, it seems the speed with which the eggs hatch, the larvae grow and pupate is a function of temperature (and feed). The bees huddle over the brood and by vibrating their bodies they keep the temperature between 86 and 95 degrees. The higher the temperature, the quicker the brood will mature. Given that I have about 200 bees right now, some of which have become field bees in the last two days, there are very few bees left to cover and warm the brood. This self-limiting factor that means the population will grow only very slowly at first.

The good news is, that I saw the nurse bees feeding larvae today. So the eggs have already hatched - much sooner than might normally take place (in 2.25 days rather than 3). With some bees out foraging, they'll be bringing in pollen, and nectar. If the bees keep up this pace, and I keep bringing the observation hive in at night, the usual 21 day egg to emergence could be cut to as little as 16 days. They share my sense of urgency.

What gives me pause is this: the level of planning that the colony has demonstrated took place without apparent consultation, without any drama, and was implemented flawlessly. They came from a hell-hole of a hive, infected with AFB, nosema, wax moths and wetness. Given a safe, clean foundation, they became the best of what bees can be - cooperative, congenial, organized and purposeful.

Okay, and cannibals - they became cannibals, too - but it was only a little nibble, just for a little bit.

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