June 2019 Introduction: I’m not going to touch this post. No deletions or rewriting. It’s interesting to see where I was during my fourth summer of beekeeping. The answer to the question, old queen or virgin, is answered in the comments that are well worth reading.
Here’s a video that shows what I think — what I hope — is a virgin queen that emerged from a swarm cell after a colony swarmed. If it’s not a virgin queen, it might be the colony’s original queen, which means the colony is on the verge of swarming. Please feel free to leave a comment if you can identify what kind of queen she is, old or virgin. I’ll explain more after the video.
(Thanks to Jonathan Adams for getting behind the camera.)
A colony that is about to swarm will produce several swarm cells (queen cells). Also good to know: 1) A while before flying off in a swarm, the old queen will be pestered by the workers so that she stops laying eggs, loses some of her body weight and is in prime condition for flying when it comes time to swarm. 2) Bees will gorge themselves on honey before swarming. 3) After the swarm, a virgin queen will emerge from one of the swarm cells left behind in the hive and start stinging to death, as quickly as possible, all the other queens still stuck in their swarm cells. 4) A virgin queen is small (e.g., she can sometimes fit through a queen excluder) because queens don’t get really big until they’ve mated and start laying eggs. So… let’s consider what we just saw in that video.
Despite the presence of several capped swarm cells (not all shown in the video), an opened swarm cell leads me to believe that the colony has swarmed and a new queen has emerged. The queen I spotted running around fits the description of a virgin queen: She’s small, fast-moving and apparently ready to kill.
The other possibility: I tore open the swarm cell when I pulled out the frame and the queen I spotted is the original queen, small and trim after being pestered by the worker bees and ready to fly off in a swarm any day now. Notice at the 1:54 mark when she’s stinging to death a worker bee, another worker eventually bites at her abdomen and chases her away — like it would to prepare a queen for a swarming flight. Also notice at the 0:48 mark the number of bees with their heads stuck inside honey cells — as if they are gorging themselves on honey in preparation for swarming.
Why I ultimately think (and hope) the colony has already swarmed: I’ve seen bees gorging themselves on honey just before a swarm and it looked like a wall of fat bloated bees with their heads stuck in every honey cell, which is different from what’s shown in the video. I also visited the colony the day after I took the video and found a couple of swarm cells with a circle chewed around the end caps like a hatch door, which to me indicates the queens inside were minutes away from popping the hatch and crawling out — just like they would after a swarm. The coolest thing I saw that day as well — and I kick myself for not bringing my camera — is a queen emerging from a swarm cell. To cut to the chase, I had a swarm cell in my hand, was ready to give it to a friend, but the queen chewed her away out of the cell, right there in my hand, while my friend was running to his car to get a container for the queen cell. She started crawling fast around my hand as soon as she got out, so I put her back in the hive because I didn’t want to risk losing her in the grass.
Why I’m looking for assistance: I don’t have enough practical, close up experience with swarms and unmated queens to quickly identify what I’m looking at when I see it. It’s possible the queen in the video is a virgin, but for all I know, she could just as easily be the old queen, thin and trim and ready to swarm. If anyone with more queen experience can tell me one way or the other, I’d be grateful.
In the meantime, I have swarm traps set up near my hives. If any of them swarm and I’m not around to see it, hopefully they’ll settle into the swarm traps.