It's All About the Queen

Bees make honeycomb. They use it for storing food and raising young bees.

Honeybees start by hanging heart-shaped pendants.

The hearts grow in size very quickly to become plates and panels. 

The bees fill these out to a trapezoidal shape.

 Secreting more wax from their bodies, the bees’ construction teams join 1, or 2, or 3 or more pendants to create hearts of wax. They use the top 2 - 3 inches of most combs as storage for honey and nectar. The balance of the cells will be used by the queen to lay eggs for workers or for drones. Cells destined to house drone eggs are made to a different, larger diameter.  Natural cell size in the brood nest tends to be between 4.5 – 4.8mm and are not uniform.  Today, most commercial foundation cell sizes are a uniform 5.3mm. 

Although the name "queen" might imply it, a queen bee does not directly control the hive. The honey bee queen is the sole reproductive female in the colony. She specializes solely in egg laying, while the remaining female “workers” perform all other colony duties. The male “drones'” only function is to mate with a virgin queen. 

The queen is often given credit for choices she does not make. Her daughters make the judgments on where and when eggs are needed. They know which cells are drone-sized and which are normal for workers.  The queen bee is able to control the sex of the eggs she lays. The queen lays a fertilized (female) or unfertilized (male) egg according to the width of the cell. The queen fertilizes the egg by selectively releasing sperm from her spermatheca as the egg passes through her oviduct. 

When the workers have need of the queen’s services, they round her up (literally) wherever she is meandering and escort her to the area that is ready for eggs. Then the steering committee (court) fawns over her to induce laying. Beginning roughly towards the front end of the hive, the queen lays her eggs in empty and prepared and cells between and below the honey/pollen stores. 

Honeybees have evolved a  sex-determination system that has a number of peculiarities. The male's genes are entirely derived from the their mother. The diploid queen has 32 chromosomes and the haploid drones have 16 chromosomes. Drones produce sperm cells that contain their entire genome; so the sperm are all genetically identical except for mutations. The genetic makeup of female worker bee eggs is half derived from the mother and half from one of the many males who mated with the queen.

 The young queen stores up to 6 million sperm from 12 - 20 drones .  She will selectively release sperm for the remaining 2–7 years of her life. 

Worker Brood vs Drone Brood


Her larval brood cells form a cluster spanning many neighboring combs that grows to about the size and shape of a small football.

The capped cells of workers vary from ivory to tan to brown, flat-topped. Drone cells develop an eraser-looking "cap" on top.

Can you find the drone brood in this picture? The worker brood?

This is where the next generation of young workers and drones are hatched and cared for.   The total development time varies a bit among the three castes of bees, but the basic miraculous process is the same: 24 days for drones, 21 days for worker bees, and 16 days for queens. 

In the nest, the queen's larvae are fed by a caste of ‘nurse bees’ until capped as pupae for final development. 


Spring Is the Time for 'Increase'

 In the late Spring as the nectar flow comes on, the hive size expands rapidly from front to back. We may want to add 2 – 4 top bars to provide space for expansion of the colony.


Or, we may want to let the bees experience some over-crowding. Spring over-crowding is one factor inducing them to create new queen cells and prepare to swarm as you see here.

Queen Cells Bear New Queens

 Inducing the bees to start  building queen cells is one  method of obtaining strong  queen cells as the key  preparation for a making  increase via a “hive split”. In this situation, we did not  want to relieve any sense  of overcrowding by adding  extra top bars.

We have successfully imitated swarm conditions and induced the building of viable queen cells. Our hives have twice raised successful new queens in response to this colony management technique.

Bait A Trap. Catch New Residents.

Another way to expand your apiary is to capture a bee swarm passing by.  A swarm is a large collection of thousands of worker bees who have flown away from their former home -- with an older queen -- in search of a suitable new hive cavity.

Maybe they're 'wild'; maybe they're escapees from another farmer's hives. 

Bait a small hive with some queen pheromone. Add a little honey and a few bars of empty, drawn comb. Hang it in a tree 5' - 8' off the ground.

We have attracted swarms scouting out our neighborhood.

Build Your Own

Looking for Fresh Eggs

Also, even with my bad eyesight, we tried scooping fresh eggs from cells and sliding them into plastic 'queen cups'.

Grafting Into Queen Cups

We enlisted professional help from a Master Beekeeper. We inserted the candidate queen cups into a hive that was queenless. The bees extended the queen cups into several queen cell 'peanuts'.

Workers Were Curious

But nothing was ever capped or developed into a viable queen cell.

Pinch a Few Cells with New Eggs

We also tried a method recommended on YouTube by 'The Fat Bee Man'. He said to cut some comb with freshly laid eggs in it. Pinch it every inch or so. Suspend it under a bar. Return it to the hive.     

Any hive!

Too Miraculous!

Allegedly the worker bees would soon add Royal Jelly and transform part of these isolated segments into queen cells. 

Bar #7QC Started . . .

Too easy to be true.

Never worked for us!

Improve Your Genetics. Don't Treat with Chemicals.

It Started in May 2012

Complete novices, we drove up to the Hudson Valley NY and back, all in one day, to get our first ever bees from Sam Comfort, Anarchy Apiaries.

We went to Sam because we bought his philosophy of seeking hardy bees from queens who had survived New York winters for several years -- "survivor bees" were our foundation stock.

"You Open It." "No, You Open It."

Four hundred miles with two 8-bar "nucleus" hives full of 100,000 treatment free apis mellifera in cardboard boxes in the back of  my Subaru station wagon.

We had cut a window in the boxes, covered it with screen mesh and duct-taped them tightly shut.

Duct tape is never tight enough. Every 100 miles we stopped to expel a few dozen loose bees from the inside of the car.

Sam's Nucs Were Famous

We transferred the top bars in one whole armful into our waiting hive boxes.

Five years later, we are still treatment free building on the strong genetics of survivor queens.

Using the "sugar roll" technique, we have not ever seen evidence of varroa buildups in our hives.  

But varroa mites remain a worry . . .

Search & Destroy Varroa

So, in April, 2016, we took  a one day trip across the state to purchase two more nucs of survivor queens with strong genetics from Jeff Bertha, Always Summer Herbs, outside Pittsburgh, PA (

One nuc  -- the Buckfast Varroa Resistant Hybrids (VSH) -- it was said, was bred to search out and destroy the cells of larvae infected with varroa mites. They uncap the cells, pull out the larvae, and throw them away.

Varroa Fighting Behavior

The other survivor nuc from Jeff -- part of a Purdue University research project -- were  Carnolians known as "Purdue Leg Biters". 

They can be observed picking mites from each other and biting the legs off the pests. The varroa can't hold on. Fall  off and die.

MCBA VSH Breeder

In July, 2017 -- thinking one of our hives was weakening due to the advanced age of their queen -- we obtained our third Varroa Specific Hybrid (VSH) nuc locally from Dr. Vince Alloyo, a local Master Beekeeper, member of Montgomery County Beekeepers Association (MCBA). 

Those bees are now among our most prolific.

'Sugar Roll' rinse water shows no mites.

Doing an inspection, I dropped the Queen.

The colony really wants her back. I picked her up and returned her to the hive.

In Pursuit of Honey

Some Good Lookin' Capped Honey

 At other times, bee herders may want to exclude the queen from a portion of the honey area so that she doesn’t lay eggs and raise brood in the cells they will want to harvest.   Here is a bar of very attractive-looking capped honey.  

Some combs -- before and after the brood cluster -- are filled with nectar and pollen. These cells are fanned to dehydrate them -- concentrated to 18% water -- to render pure honey and then capped with wax.

Placing a queen excluder between the brood area and the honey area could come in quite handy to keep the queen out of the honey area.    

More Good Lookin' Honey



Top Bar Queen Excluder ?

So, we didn't want the queen laying eggs and starting brood in all the comb. 

After some on-line research showed that there wasn’t anything available as a “queen excluder” for a top bar hive, we decided to experiment with separating the queen from honey only areas.  

Here's the design we came up with. Our first QX (queen excluder) boards were spare backer boards – ½” thick under 1 ⅜”-wide top bars with squarish holes cut through. The squarish hole was covered with #6 wire mesh.


We added a vegetable oil-filled (“Beetle Blaster”) tray to trap and drown small hive beetles. The pair of L-hooks did a good job holding the Beetle Blaster trap.

But this Queen Excluder design didn’t work very well, at all. 

It's that 'bee space' business, again. Apparently, the queen excluder top bar needs to be narrower than a regular top bar.  Otherwise, the bees tend compute the distance from the previous bar and start there as a place to build new comb. 

Perhaps, just a ⅜”-wide cleat across the top of a ⅜” trapezoidal frame would be enough to support a panel of queen excluder mesh. No need for the full 1 ⅜”-width of a top bar. That narrower separation might better fit inside the bees’ idea of how far apart the honeycombs should be. Further experiments with QX - queen excluder tools will have to wait for another honey season.

"Beekeeper error" -- one of primary opportunities we get to harvest some of our bees' scrumptious honey.

Respect the 'Bee Space'


We continue to learn the hard way that bees will build honey comb in any open space left greater than ⅜” wide.   

I did this, in a rush, after mis-reading some lines from, “Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom & Pleasure Combined”, by Wyatt A. Mangum, Ph.D.

He said leave some easy access space for yourself at the front of the hive. 

Sorry, Wyatt.   In writing about utilizing cleats as spacers, you said nothing of the kind about wide gaps being useful for front access. My mistake.

You may add ¼” – ⅜” - wide “cleats” as spacers between bars in the honey area or at the front. But, in general, keep your top bars squeezed together tightly.

Disrespect the 'bee space' and you’ll get lots of this.

Burr comb contains uncured honey that you have to eat fast or it will ferment!  

Give Bees A Garden

Bees can survive the hardest winter as long as they can remain dry and free of cold drafts.  They huddle together on the cluster and shiv-v-v-v-er their wing muscles to generate heat. The interior of the hive can be maintained at 90-95 degrees. 

We Explained The 'Weeds' to The Neighbors

Variety and Abundance

Glorious Beauty

Dense Scents of Summer

Late Fall: An Explosion of Asters

On a really hot day in mid-summer,

Some bees go out on the porch, turn around backwards, & turn up the air conditioning.

Who told them to do that?

Really !!??

You cannot convince me that it is in their "genes".

There is a Greater Power running this whole show.

On a really hot day in mid-summer,

many many bees gather on the front porch.  

On a really hot day in mid-summer,

denizens drape themselves on the outside walls.


Before you go, there's lots more to know and see.


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