From an ecological perspective, might queen balling be a good thing?

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Icing Sugar

New Bee
Jul 25, 2011
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I have just read an interesting observational study of what happens when mated queens are introduced to a foreign colony. It described 12 queen introductions.

The paper is:
  • Robinson, GE. Worker and queen honey bee behaviour during foreign queen introduction. Insectes Sociaux. 1984; 31: 254-263.

It is a 10-page paper but the key points can be summarised as follows:
  • When a foreign queen is introduced into a colony, there is a 75% chance of it inducing a balling reaction during which a steady turnover of workers forms a dense cluster around her for a variable period of time. The entire balling episode typically lasts somewhere between 4 hours and slightly more than a day. Perhaps 20% the worker population, nearly all of whom are at least 12-days old, take part in this activity at some point but only about 30 workers are found in the ball at any one time. Balling typically starts 10-minutes to an hour after queen introduction. It is precipitated by just one to three workers attacking the queen but within about 30 seconds about 30 workers are involved. For the first few minutes, the workers in the ball vibrate their abdomens and beat their wings but this soon settles down. Subsequent to that, the vast majority of participants are non-aggressive and stay in the ball for about 2 minutes at a time. They either remain motionless around the queen or display attentive behaviour such as antennating, licking, stroking and feeding her. However, up to one-in-six workers (about 2% the entire worker population) remain in the ball for longer periods of time and behave aggressively towards her. Most of this aggression is mild in nature and comprises mounting her and/or adopting threatening postures. About one-fifth of the aggression is more extreme, typically taking the form of biting. There might be occasional unsuccessful attempts to sting her. Early on in balling, the queen spends a lot of time submissively soliciting food and opening her sting chamber for inspection, the latter being of particular interest to the balling bees. After about 4 hours, she typically breaks free for a few minutes before becoming surrounded again. This can happen several times and, on each occasion, a queen that is destined for acceptance becomes increasingly assertive in her efforts to stay out of the ball whilst the workers become more accepting of her. About one-in-three balled queens are rejected and killed, typically after about 4 hours of balling. Rejected queens might receive a bit less attentive behaviour in the ball but they are not obviously subjected to a higher level of aggression.

Of course I want to do all I can to reduce the risk of balling when introducing alien mated queens to colonies, and having just read “The Introduction of Queen Bees” by Snelgrove I plan to continue using the water method as my main introduction technique, perhaps experimenting with the “one-hour method” during 2017. However, the Robinson paper has raised some rather obvious questions for me:
  1. Shouldn’t I simply regard balling as normal behaviour to which three out of four introduced queens might be subjected, of whom two out of three might survive? Doesn’t this seem like quite a healthy and reasonable colony reaction to the sudden and unexpected arrival of an alien queen, even if the colony is potentially doomed to extinction if they do not accept her?
  2. Doesn’t the picture painted by Robinson suggest that this is some kind of important test that the queen has to pass? It is certainly not random activity. Firstly, she has to allow herself to be very carefully inspected by the colony and perhaps the largely stylized and non-dangerous aggression she experiences is simply intended to ensure that she is submissive enough for this to take place. The inspection allows the workers to intimately familiarise themselves with her unique pheromone profile. However, might it also allow some kind of infection/contamination screen to take place which, if she doesn’t pass, leads to her death? Secondly, after a suitable inspection period, she has to assert herself to gain full acceptance. This arguably demonstrates physical wellbeing and strength, both of which are traits that definitely serve the interests of her future colony.
  3. Don’t I rather like the idea of all this? Isn’t it a set of activities that I ought not to interfere with? Shouldn’t I resist the temptation to anthropomorphize?
  4. As I favour direct introduction methods, aren’t most of the instances of balling actually going to start long after I have shut the hive up again, meaning that I never get to know about them? (Furthermore, can anyone categorically tell me that balling does not take place just as often shortly after a caged queen is finally released into a receptive colony? Won’t the workers want to have a good old sniff and taste of her sting chamber too?)
  5. If I break up this behaviour in the small number of instances that I actually witness during direct introduction (either by dropping the ball of bees in water or smoking it heavily), isn’t it probably going to start all over again anyway, a few minutes after I walk away from the hive?
  6. Is the chance of successful introduction actually reduced if I knowingly walk away from a queen who experiences balling within moments of her introduction?
  7. I plan to take queen rearing more seriously next year. When rearing queens, it is important to factor in for losses along the way. Don’t I just treat potential losses from balling as yet another factor in the equation (i.e. In the unlikely event of the water method having no inhibitory impact on the balling behaviour of honey bees, perhaps 1 in 4 introduced queens will be rejected)?
  8. The national honey bee stock might not actually be that great. If balling is viewed as an ecologically conserved and appropriate screening behaviour, might efforts by the beekeeper to actively prevent it at the time of queen introduction play into the problem?
  9. After introducing a queen, we are advised not to inspect the hive again until it is likely for brood in all stages to be present. This is because the workers and the queen can remain “nervous” until that point and premature inspection can induce killing of the queen. What is this “nervousness” if it is not balling-related activity? And what we are advised to do about it is leave it alone to sort itself out.

Does anyone regularly and routinely walk away from directly-introduced queens that get balled within moments of introduction? If so, how often do the queens actually die and how often do they survive? (In a recent post, I described a queen that was reintroduced to her own colony after marking and who was balled and died. However, a single case like that is scientifically unhelpful even if it has considerable potential to create prejudice).

Thanks for your thoughts.
When I put new queens into the hives in July, when good flow is on, hives accept 90% of queens. And then in August, when robbers are busy, and no yield, it is easy to kill 90% out of your queen store.

In August it is was to join the nucs, but probability to loose the queen is extremely high.

Then in September, when I feed for winter, queen introducing is very easy.

To change queens in spring is very easy too

Cluster of bees want to kill the Queen.

When the Queen gets a little bit poison on its body, even its own colony does want to take it back. Queen can be saved when soak the Queen into warm water and let the small gang to lick the Queen dry.

I do not want to make theories to that. It just happens year after year.
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Of course I want to do all I can to reduce the risk of balling when introducing alien mated queens to colonies ...

Much depends on whether you want to be an entomologist, or a beekeeper ...

If the former, then there are dozens of papers on this subject you can read, many of which present conflicting views and opinions.

If the latter, then find for yourself a method of queen introduction which works - and stick to it.

My favorite method is to place the queen in a mailing cage (with or without attendants, it really doesn't matter) sitting on a flat surface so that her legs aren't pulled from below. Placing the cage next to a crown board feeder hole is ideal, and with a transparent cover placed over the cage and access hole.
Lift the cage every day and wipe a matchstick or barbeque skewer gently across the cage top. If the bees 'stick' to the cage like velcro, replace the cage and check again the next day.
When the bees obligingly lift their legs to let the matchstick pass under them, they have accepted the queen. I then like to wait a further 24hrs, and then release her directly onto the combs.

I've never yet had a failure (i.e. death) when using this method - although once I waited 7 days for a Carnie queen to be accepted by one colony, and eventually had to give up. I then gave her to another colony where she was accepted in 2 days. I discussed this with Randy Oliver - my money was on disparate genetics, but his money was on disparate cuticle hydrocarbons (which could be the same thing, of course ...). Whatever the problem was, it would very probably have led to balling.

My preferred method of introduction of mated laying queens is by direct introduction, no smoke used and no sprays or anything else.
Defensive colonies are another thing.

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