Inside: You shouldn’t panic if you find a small intercaste queen in your hive. Often, they end up saving a colony during their very short lives.
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Don’t react impulsively to a tiny queen
If you follow conventional wisdom, you will pinch that intercaste queen immediately and replace her with a “real queen.” A quick internet search for intercaste queen yields descriptions like “a useless, mutated bee,” “a reject,” “no good at all,” and “they have no purpose.”
Nothing could be further from the truth unless your bottom line is everything. I concede that allowing an intercaste queen to reign can slow your colony development and ding your honey production. Hence, the derisive name-calling.
But if learning about honey bees is your goal, and you get the opportunity to watch an intercaste in action, I say go for it. When I took the time to watch a tiny intercaste change her colony from nearly dead to a roiling mass of pollinators, I was gobsmacked. I had witnessed a stunning act of perseverance.
What is an intercaste queen?
In normal queen development, the workers choose a few newly hatched larvae and feed them a diet of royal jelly. This exquisite diet of nothing but the best allows the selected larvae to develop into fully functioning queens ready to mate.
But sometimes things go drastically wrong. Some of the chosen larvae may not develop properly. Some may contract diseases or parasites, and competing queens may kill some of the others. Others may die during their mating flight, and some may get lost and not find their way home. Any number of tragedies can befall a queen before she begins the vital business of laying fertilized eggs.
If everything goes wrong, the colony may find itself in dire straits. The brood nest may still have some larvae but the young ones are all gone, so there is no possibility of feeding royal jelly to newly hatched larvae. So what’s a colony to do?
How bees raise intercaste queens
What happens is this: The colony picks the youngest larvae they can find and begin feeding royal jelly. These larvae are often about four days old, which is ancient for building queens. Nevertheless, in a last-ditch effort to save the colony, the workers try.
If the colony is lucky, some of these will grow into intercaste queens. They are called intercastes because each one is part worker and part queen. The late start meant there was simply not enough time to raise a regular queen.
Intercaste queens are usually smaller than regular queens and have less-pointy abdomens. Although they can attract drones and mate, their pheromones are probably less potent than those of a normal queen
My very own intercaste
I knew my top-bar hive was struggling to raise a queen. It seemed to take forever, but I finally saw some eggs. But the brood pattern was small, with a couple of round patches on each of two frames. It didn’t look right, but I was relieved that something was happening.
I searched for the queen two or three times before I found her. She was tiny, a pint-sized mini-queen with a full retinue. When she laid an egg, she backed up into a cell and fell in. A moment later, she struggled to pull herself out of the waxen cylinder, legs and antennae flailing. Then she did it again. No wonder the brood area was small: climbing in and out was a full-time job.
Any normal beekeeper would have replaced her by now, but I was fascinated. I checked on her progress every few days. Each time, finding her was the hard part, but by searching for her retinue, I could track her whereabouts.
A clever bridge to survival
My mini-queen survived about three weeks. I didn’t see her after that and I don’t know her fate. I wish I had gotten a portrait.
But during those weeks, she laid normal, fertilized eggs. And from those eggs, new workers raised new queens—authentic, full-sized, normal queens.
It didn’t take long for one of the new queens to win the throne. Within a few more weeks, the colony erupted into a full-size powerhouse.
Not so useless after all
Going back to the descriptions of intercaste queens I found on the internet, you can see they are wrong. There is no mutation. They are not useless. And they most definitely have a purpose. They are entirely capable of saving an otherwise hopeless colony, especially one that has no keeper. You can think of them as interim queens.
When I watched the process, I realized I was watching mother nature at her finest. Here was a system that gives a nearly dead colony an eleventh-hour chance to save itself. The intercaste queen is nothing short of a hero. Her short life allowed her lineage to carry on through time. My colony lives on to this day, nine years later.
Watching a hive miracle happen
I totally understand if you don’t have the time or patience to watch a situation like this unfold. To maximize yield and profit, you can’t wait for a mini-queen to save the day. But what a learning experience!
I feel honored to have witnessed the exquisite choreography of a colony saving itself. I will never forget it. And I will never condone the raft of disparagement tossed at intercaste queens.
In short, we beekeepers should never dismiss what we don’t understand. Nature has a reason for everything.
Honey Bee Suite