I belong to that generation where asking about a person’s age, especially a female’s age is considered death defying or rude – unless of course said female is under the age of five or over the age of 95, in which case one is fairly safe following that line of questioning.
There is, however, a certain caste of females in which establishing age immediately is of the utmost importance. I am of course talking about queens. Not the doddering ones with an obvious penchant for pastel coordinates, but rather the fluffy brown, amber, black and yellow ones, also known as my darling, sweet queen bees.
One of the most recurring questions I get asked as a beekeeper is, “How long does a queen bee live or how old are your queen bees?” No one is ever really interested in how old or how long a drone (male) bee lives for, until I tell them their sad plight. Then there is always a shocked silence, usually followed by “poor b*ggers”. I could not disagree more, yet do not want to digress from the topic of establishing age.
Establishing a queen bee’s age is done by marking a newly mated queen on her thorax with a bright dot of colour. There are five specific colours used in apiculture and the choice of colour depends on the final digit of the current year. So, for example, years ending in one or six, the colour is white; years ending in two or seven, the colour is yellow, years ending in three or eight it is red; years ending in four or nine it is green and years ending in five or zero the colour is blue. Beekeepers usually mark their queens so it is easier to identify them during a hive inspection, but more importantly queens are marked in order to calculate, or rather remember, how old they are. The actual colour marking of a queen is carried out by trapping the queen delicately inside a queen catcher from which she cannot escape nor move, then quickly applying the dot of colour to her thorax and releasing her back into the hive. Some experienced beekeepers carry out this colour marking ritual by catching the queen’s wings between their thumb and forefinger and then applying the dot. I have always shied away from this for fear of damaging her delicate wings or, even worse, squishing her between my fingers.
Beekeepers and beekeeping books teach us that a hive is only as strong as its queen. A well-mated queen can lay between 1000-2500 eggs a day during spring and summer.
Obviously, over time, her capacity to lay large quantities diminishes as she depletes her reservoir (spermatheca) of sperm to fertilise eggs. When a queen’s laying capacity diminishes, so do the number of bees within the hive, thus making it weaker and prone to disease, cold and starvation. So dear readers, it really just comes down to how well the queen mated during her mating flight. Some queens continue laying consistently for two years, others only for eight months, whereas some beekeepers prefer to re-queen their hives every six months. The longest I have personally had a queen in a hive was two and a half years and her laying pattern was constant till the end. So, I guess, this is where we should raise our mead chalices and make a toast proclaiming, “Long live our well-laid queens.”