queen bees

An intercaste queen stars in a class act of survival

If you follow the 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 some may be killed by competing queens. 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 a newly hatched larvae. So what’s a colony to do?

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 own intercaste queen

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 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 miracle

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.

The message is clear: Never dismiss what you don’t understand.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Unlike this full-sized queen, my intercaste queen had a shorter, more rounded abdomen. She was also small overall, not much longer than a worker. However, her legs splayed outward like a regular queen and she attracted a retinue of worker bees.
Unlike this full-sized queen, my intercaste queen had a shorter, more rounded abdomen. She was also small overall, not much longer than a worker. However, her legs splayed outward like a regular queen and she attracted a retinue of worker bees. Pixabay photo.

21 Comments

  • I saw this happen several times a few years ago here in Scotland; in one case a colony produced a series of three small queens before managing a full-size model in time for the winter.

    Today, I found one in a friend’s colony; there were five frames of brood including drone brood (but no emerged drone cells), good for this time of the year. She has obviously over-wintered her colony very successfully.

    I imagine she’ll be superceded soon but will have served her purpose very well.

  • This is a heartwarming story. Nature is amazing.

    I never fail to tell people to read your stories!

  • This is a great story. Plus it’s a good example of why the answer to so many bee questions has to start with, “What’s your purpose in keeping bees?” Are we trying to collect money, or stories, or even simply hours of happiness?

  • Greetings.

    So I play guitar a lot in my living room and I noticed as I was doing so one day a bee was hovering outside my open window in the sun, flew away, then would occasion to make a return flight by the window and hover more for a bit. I thought to myself, that is interesting, so I surmised bees can then `detect` harmonious sound waves that they enjoy.

    So today I walked outside and the same large bumble zipped on by me and stored herself in my concrete wall right outside my doorsteps. Also, the other day I was at a particularly nice store that just happens to be selling full honeycombs with the wax and all. (1st time I’ve ever seen that). Of course, I had to have them, not only for the honey but also for the design elements that are so intriguing. Now to my question. Will she enjoy it as well if I leak some honey out by her hidey-hole? If not, what would be good for her. Thanks… ….:^.)

    • David,

      A few things, here. Is the hidey-hole in your wall the entrance to a big cavity, or is it just big enough for one bee? If it only fits one bee, it’s not a bumble.

      Second, since honey can transmit a few bee-to-bee diseases, it’s best to give wild bees some sugar water or nothing at all. If you have flowers, they will find plenty of food.

      Third, I have a couple of posts on how to eat comb honey, here and here.

      • It’s a good-sized cavity, I seen her fly in and then waited for 5 min or so and she didn’t fly back out.

        Right, the honey is from another country, so maybe that isn’t the best idea?

        I just chew it all and swallow the wax 🙂

  • You were truly blessed to see this event. If more beekeepers would only slow down and really learn about the bees. They don’t give up, they are fascinating. Never believe what you read from the internet rummies. These ‘little queens’ do amazing things in their short life spans.

    • Yes, but they only make tiny amounts. The small pots of honey are used mostly by the queen, who is so busy laying eggs that she doesn’t have time to go foraging for food.

  • Just a beautiful story! And (as USUAL!) I’ve learned something new. Thank you, Rusty, for sharing your lovely point of view!

  • So glad you wrote this contrary story. Bee lore is almost always wrong and discovery is such an invigorating part of beekeeping.

    • Thanks, Bill

      Life is so strange. Not ten minutes ago I was looking you up, searching for one of your past ABJ articles.

  • Beautiful story, Rusty. I, too, wish you had taken a portrait of your mini-queen. Everything on this earth has a purpose. I wish more people understood this …

  • Fascinating. Thank you, Rusty. The longer I keep bees (12 years), the more I appreciate how much there is to learn about them. I wish I were about 30 years younger, still on the up side of the memory storage parabola. Sigh.

  • I have learnt another pearly piece of bee magic from this post. Who’d of thought bees can be that smart… Me because they absolutely have thought of everything.

  • I absolutely love this article! Thank you for this information! I will always think twice before pinching a queen again…

  • I truly enjoy your posts and outlook on the bees around us. Your posts have opened my eyes to the nature of all bees.

    thank you

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