The Hive and The Queen

Andrew and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the entire Ender series of books by Orson Scott Card on Audible, but that’s not what I’m writing about today. While we were visiting our family in Wellington, Andrew’s dad, Colin, worked with his bees and hives a bit. He invited me to join him, and I gladly accepted.

Colin Wharton's Bee Hive

The Beehive Dismantled

From the way the bees were behaving, Colin could tell that one of his hives was going to swarm. When a hive gets large enough, the queen will lay a few more queen eggs and then gather half of the other bees and take off to begin a new hive. The rest of the bees will oversee the hatching of the queen eggs, and then either the first queen hatched will destroy the other eggs, or multiple queens will fight for ownership of the hive.

Colin could tell about a week before the bees swarmed that the queen was preparing to leave. He saw many bees on the outside of one of his hives, and they were all just hanging around at the entrance flapping their wings. Colin told me that either the hive was too hot and the bees were trying to get air inside to cool it off, or else the queen was preparing to lead a swarm to found a new hive.

One frame from one bee hive of Colin Wharton

One frame from the beehive

To prevent the queen from leaving, we opened the hive and searched the many frames to find the queen. We saw several swarm eggs (queen eggs), but we couldn’t find the queen, though we looked through the hive four times on two trips. The problem is that before the queen leads the swarm, she is placed on a diet so that she’ll quit laying eggs. This makes her only slightly larger than the other bees, which means that she is spotted mostly from the difference in color between her and the worker bees. (Drone bees are much darker than either the queen or the workers.)

We moved two of the frames containing swarm eggs into each of two new hive boxes, as well as a few hundred bees, hoping the queen would be included in the mass we moved into one or another of the new hive boxes. Even if the queen was not included, the hive should hatch the new queens and produce a new hive.

Sunday morning, the next door neighbor told Colin that a bunch of bees were in the tree beside his garage. The queen had swarmed. When a hive swarms, all of the bees that leave with the queen will gorge themselves on honey, so that they have plenty of food to stock their new hive. Because they are so full, they are unable to bend enough to sting. Still, we wore our bee suits for safety. I certainly wouldn’t have felt comfortable approaching all those bees in just shirt sleeves. The bees will first fly a short distance from the original hive and settle onto a branch in a tree. Then individual bees will fly out searching for a good spot to colonize.

A swarm of bees being collected by Colin Wharton

Gathering the Swarm

Before the bees could find a new home of their own, we walked down the hill to the neighbor’s house with a small hive box with a few frames and gathered the bees into it. Later in the day, Colin brought the box back up the hill to join the rest of his beehives. So, from that one beehive preparing to swarm, Colin got two extra hives with swarm eggs, plus the new hive with the swarm, plus the original beehive. Four beehives from one! That is a great increase.

Monday we went with Colin to purchase more supplies for his beehives. He bought 100 frames and 100 wax cores that fit into the frames. Each hive box holds up to ten frames and wax foundations, but Colin usually installs only eight or nine into each box. Each hive usually has two hive boxes for their own livelihood, for eggs and honey and such, and then Colin adds another one, two or three boxes for honey, which he later collects and places into plastic tubs for family use and gifts. Andrew and I were given about a dozen tubs of honey when Colin and Liz visited back in July.

While Colin was talking with the bee supply guy, he told Colin that there are no more bees in the wild in New Zealand. The only bees in New Zealand are now kept by bee keepers, like Colin. Whenever a hive swarms, someone will collect the swarm, or else the bees will die. The Varroa Mite has infected all hives in New Zealand’s North Island and almost all of South Island, and without proper treatment, the bees will die.

There were many things we did and enjoyed while visiting the Wharton Family in Wellington, and working with Colin’s beehives was one of my favorites. I’ll write more about other things we did during the next few days.


Inside one of Colin Wharton's bee hives

Inside a Beehive


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2 Responses to The Hive and The Queen

  1. Colin Wharton says:

    Wow … full and accurate Dave. An excellent summary.