All hail the queen! At least that’s what the beekeepers at the Zeller family honey producing operation are hoping some of their worker bees will do upon the arrival of about 600 new queen bees this week. The annual task of introducing the new queens to the existing bee population takes place each spring as part of expanding the operation’s bee population. The bee colonies produce all of the honey that is used to make candy at the Queen Bee Gardens factory in Lovell.
Each queen bee arrives pre-fertilized in her own tiny little cage ready to start her own colony. The trick is to convince the already existing worker bees on the ground to accept her and nourish her with a never-ending supply of royal jelly as she pumps out eggs for the next three to five years, explained Ben Zeller of the Queen Bee Gardens honey operation.
“Usually we have about a 10 percent loss of bees every year,” said Zeller. “That’s normal, so we have to replenish all of them. This is the fastest, most efficient way to do that.”
Zeller said the operation maintains about 2,000 bee colonies. Each colony is served by about 200,000 workers bees, which must have their own queen to survive. The queen is the only bee allowed to mate and reproduce and is kept alive by being fed the naturally formed royal jelly, which comes from a special secretion made by the bees themselves.
Unfortunately, queens don’t last forever so the bees must go through the arduous process of selecting, grooming and fertilizing larva in an effort to produce a new queen every now and then in order to keep the colony alive. Zeller said the beekeepers are just helping things along by providing the already fertile queen. The trick is to get the bees to accept her. To do so, a small cork is removed from the end of her tiny cage and replaced with a delicious hunk of none other than Queen Bee Gardens candy. The worker bees literally eat the cork to release their new queen into the hive and as a result of their efforts are much more willing to accept her than if she was simply placed loose in the colony.
To prepare for the arrival of the new queens this week, the beekeepers could be seen in the bee yards near Lovell splitting the existing hives into two colonies. One colony is left behind with the old queen. The other is transported during a time when the maximum number of bees are inside (usually at night or in the early morning hours) to a location more than two miles away from the old nest in an effort to discourage the bees from remaining loyal to the old queen. Once the new queen is released and accepted, a new colony is formed. The candy cork just sweetens the deal.
“The bees seem to have little built-in GPS devices and will return to exactly where the colony was even if it’s moved only a foot away,” explained Zeller. “They will go right back to where the colony is supposed to be and just sit there and wait. So, we usually take them at least two miles away and sometimes four or five miles away because if it is only one mile away, they return to that very same spot again looking for their old colony.”
The honey produced by the bees is used to make candy at the Queen Bee Gardens factory using a secret family recipe handed down through generations. The candy is sold both locally and nationwide. The honey itself is also sold.
By Patti Carpenter