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No matter how many beekeeping books you've read, you need Rosanna Mattingly's Honey-Maker to bring it all together. Honey-Maker is a handbook about the worker bee herself—what she does, how she does it, and how all her little parts work together. For less than the price of one average queen bee, you can learn the secrets of the worker in minute detail. She—and the book—are nothing short of awesome.

Why are my bees different colors?

“I’m worried about my bees. They are very busy and the brood frames are full but the bees are so different; some are yellow, some brown or gray, and some are almost solid black. Is my hive being invaded by robbers? What should I do?”

Good question. What you are most likely seeing is a strong colony with a good variety of genetic material. Far from being a bad sign, a mix of colors is an indicator that your queen is sufficiently mated.

As you know, a queen bee mates many times before she begins to lay eggs. The sperm from all the different drones is mixed together and held in a storage organ called the spermatheca. For the rest of her life, the queen draws from this supply to fertilize the eggs which will become workers or new queens.

Each female bee in the colony will get half of her genetic material from her mother (the queen) and half from her father (one of the drones). For the sake of argument, let’s say this particular queen mated 16 times.

A subfamily for every drone

Sixteen matings means that the queen’s offspring can be divided into 16 different subfamilies. Each of these subfamilies has the same mother, but a different father. In human terms, the offspring are very much like half siblings: one mother, different fathers.

All the bees in one subfamily (that is, all bees having the same mother and father) will be very similar to each other, even though they are not identical. They are not identical because the genes from the mother (who has two sets of chromosomes) will sort out in different ways when she is producing eggs (which have one set of chromosomes). The genes from the father will all be the same since he has only one set of chromosomes to begin with. Overall, however, the bees within one subfamily will be very similar to each other.

Bees belonging to different subfamilies will be less similar to each other because, even though the mother is the same, the father is different. These bees have thousands of traits you cannot see, but one you can see is color. So when you open your hive and see different colors and patterns, you know you are seeing the offspring of different drones.

Multiple matings can strengthen a colony

It is well known that multiple matings lead to strong colonies, and it is easy to see why. Let’s say, for example, that one of the 16 drones is a strong, fast flier but he’s allergic to apple pollen. One whiff and he keels over dead. (I’m making this up, so don’t fret over apple trees.)

He will pass this bad gene to all of his offspring. At this point, I don’t want to get into dominant and recessive genes or the regulation of genetic expression by other factors. Suffice it to say that, depending on the mother’s genetics, this defect may show up in some of his progeny.

For the sake of argument, let’s say it shows up in 50% of his children, and that those bees will die at the first scent of apple pollen. Because of multiple matings, those that die will be only 50% of 1/16 of the colony (half of one subfamily) or 1/32 of the entire colony (about 3%). A colony can survive a loss of 3%. If, however, that drone was the only father, the colony would lose half the bees—a very different story.

Mitigating the bad genes

Although I used an on/off, all-or-nothing example to illustrate my point, many real-life negative traits are suppressed by multiple matings. Disease resistance, overwintering ability, foraging distances, stress regulation, and thousands of other things are genetically controlled, and damage to the colony by so-called “bad genes” can be mitigated by multiple matings.

So next time you see bees of many colors, know that the wonders of nature and genetic inheritance are helping your colony along. Celebrate! Everything is working according to plan.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Bees of many colors share a hive.
Bees of many colors. © Rusty Burlew.

I was so much smarter then

If you are prickly, easily offended, or a second- or third-year beekeeper, please do not read this. Hey, you! Yes, you, the second-year beekeeper out there who is trying to sneak a peek! Please go away!

Wow, that was close. Anyway, for the rest of you, I have completed a one-sided, unscientific, and misguided study on the knowledge base of beekeepers correlated with the length of time they’ve been keeping bees. And this is what I found:

The beekeepers who know the least are the first years. No surprise here. Many don’t know a mite from a mouse—after all, they both live in hives—but that’s okay because they are soaking up knowledge and learning fast. They read, attend classes, ask questions. They are grateful for any help they can get.

The beekeepers who know the most, those who actually know everything there is to know, are the second- and third-years. If there is a question, they have the answer. If you have an opinion, they will let you know what they think of it—and you. They don’t read, because they could write it better. They don’t listen, because they could say it better. Trust me, there is not one thing about bees that they don’t know. If you need a fast answer and confident opinion, they are the people to see. I am happy for them as they revel in their vast knowledge.

Then, long about the fourth year, something happens—their knowledge begins to erode. It’s not that they know less, it’s that they know so much that they begin to realize how much more there is to learn. It dawns on them they’ve seen but the tip of the iceberg. They begin to see issues as complex rather than simple. They begin to see answers as multi-faceted, not smooth and round. The amount they want to learn slowly grows until it becomes infinite.

You’ve heard of the “tree of knowledge?” Well, I think of it like this: The first years are on the ground, right where the tree breaks through the soil. The second- and third-years are on the trunk where everything is smooth, well-defined, and nothing is messy. Those who’ve been at it longer are up in the limbs, branches, and twigs where every question has more than one answer and all the pathways are obscured by leaves.

Knowledgeable beekeepers start sentences with indeterminate words like, “sometimes,” “often,” or “possibly.” They read, go to lectures, search the web, and experiment. Each year that passes, as their knowledge increases in multiples, they feel they know less . . . and they want to know more. They are awed by the bees, mesmerized, humbled. They never have fast answers, only well-considered opinions that are tempered with experience and the realization that there are no easy answers—not about bees.

But, yes, the exception makes the rule. Of course there are second- and third-years who are not know-it-alls and old-timers who are. Furthermore, I don’t really think the progression from knowing nothing, to knowing everything, to knowing just a portion is bad. It’s just the way it is.

I am speaking partially from experience gathered from my website, classes I’ve taught, and lectures I’ve given, and partially from being there. I used to know way more about bees than I do now. Actually, I used to know just about everything. But once I began studying bee nutrition, pathogens, pesticide interactions, reproduction, genetics, health, hygienic behavior, flower selection, pollen composition, communication, social interaction, nest-site selection, and environmental stressors . . . well, let’s just say I know less and less every day.

‘Nuf said. Now back to the books before I lose a few more percentage points.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Tree
Where on the tree are you?