Facts about Queens and Disease

Everyone knows that a hive of bees has a queen. Though she does not hold leadership powers over those in her hive as human queens do over their subjects, she does set the tone for the behavior of her hive. The queen’s genetic code is shared with all of the workers in a hive. This strongly influences how a hive reacts to their environment, and helps define when a hive will swarm, how aggressive the workers are to threats, and how precautious workers are with disease.

The requeen action and the queen bee meeple
What would make you requeen your hive with a new bee?

The Queen’s Influence on Behavior

How bees behave within their environment is closely tied to their lineage, and that is closely tied to their queen’s genetic heritage. The queen produces 2 types of larva. Unfertilized, which becomes male drones with 16 chromosomes (all from the queen), and fertilized, which become female workers and queens with 32 chromosomes (16 from the queen and 16 from their drone father). This is further complicated by the fact that queens, even though they only go on mating flights briefly in their early life, can mate with more than three dozen drones. What this means is that all workers in the hive are at least 25% related to each other, which workers with the same drone father, known as super-sisters, are 75% related (50% from the queen and 25% from their father). This means that super-sisters are more closely related to each other than most other animals, such as us humans, who share only a 50% genetic similarity with their siblings.

The result of these close genetic pairings result in bee colonies that promote behaviors in response to certain environmental situations. This is something that apiologists have taken advantage of in breeding programs. Selecting queens and drones from colonies that exhibit desirable behaviors, either for the bees survival or to make the bees easier for humans to work with, has allowed scientists and beekeepers to manipulate how bees respond to the world around them. This has manifested in bees that are more hygenic and respond better to disease, bees that swarm more or less often, bees that take longer to become aggressive, and bees that produce more honey.

Bees and their genetics are not entirely at the whim of human genetic programs. Another role of the queen is to release pheromones that tell the hive things are well, and that suppresses the development of the workers’ ovaries. If these pheromones are off, or if the workers do not like the queen for other reasons, it can mean bad news for the hive. When this happens, the workers can decide to overthrow their queen through the process of supersedure. To do this, the workers will ball the queen, which means they tightly surround the queen and shiver to raise their body temperature. The queen, at the middle of the ball, has her body temperature raised too high and is cooked to death. The workers also build supersedure cells around some young larva to begin raising them as potential new queens for the hive.

A gloved hand holds a mason jar containing a cup of bees and powdered sugar for a sugar roll mite test
Game designer Matt Shoemaker performs a powdered sugar roll test on a cup of bees to check how infested the hive is with mites
Several white bees, from being covered in powder sugar, shake off the remnants of their sugar roll mite test
Some bees shaking off the powdered sugar from their sugar roll mite check

Disease in the Hive

As a species spread around the globe the honey bee has been introduced to a number of diseases and parasites they did not evolve with. This has been exacerbated by the industrialization of bee keeping. Considering how closely tied bees as pollinators are to humanity’s agricultural system this is a major problem.

Diseases that affect bees include American and European foulbrood, chalk brood, nosema, and deformed wing virus. The foulbrood diseases are particularly dangerous, and can be spread to healthy hives when they rob honey from infected hives. Though treatments for foulbrood do exist, most states require that infected hives be burned to prevent the spread of the disease. Nosema effects adult bees, and can cause hives to collapse over the winter or shortly after in the spring.

Bees are also troubled by several parasites. These include the small hive beetle from sub-Saharan Africa, the varroa mite from Asia, and zombie flies (Apocephalus borealis). First noted to affect honey bees in 2012, the zombie flies lay their eggs in adult bees. This infection causes the bees to act in a zombie like manner, and eventually leads them to leave the hive at night (an unusual behavior) to die on their own so the fly’s larva can leave the bee’s body. The varroa mite, first spread to North America in the late 1980s, is a more substantial threat to western honey bees. These mites infect hives and weaken the adult bees and shorten their lifespan. The varroa also spreads deformed wing virus through the hive. Mite counts in hives typically spike leading into the fall, and if they are not dealt with can lead to a low winter survival rate.

The four queen types of Bee Lives and the Varroa Mite
All four of these queen types are threatened by the Varroa Mite and other dangers

Queens in Bee Lives

There are 4 queen types available to you in Bee Lives and each one represents a different type of behavior commonly found in different subspecies or breeding programs of honey bees. The “Nomadic Queen” represents a strain known as “Russian Bees,” which were introduced in North America in the late 1990s to try and combat varroa mites. Russian Bees tend to handle varroa infestations better than the more common “Italian bee,” possibly because the Russian Bees swarm more frequently. Every time a hive swarms it causes a break in the honey bee’s brood cycle, which in turn breaks the development cycle of the varroa mite and helps prevent the infestation from growing.

The “Hygienic Queen” type was added to Bee Lives to reflect recent efforts of the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab. This group has worked to breed bees that exhibit hygienic behavior that is effective against diseases like foulbrood and various parasites. The workers of these strains recognize and uncap cells that contain diseased brood, and then remove them from the hive. This is a behavior all bees exhibit, but these hygienic varieties perform with more regularity and thoroughness.

The “Africanized honey bee” also makes an appearance in Bee Lives as the “Aggressive Queen.” These bees were created as an experiment in Brazil during the 1950s to breed Italian bees with the African Lowland bee in an attempt to increase honey production. Several colonies of these bees escaped the lab and began spreading northward, finally reaching the United States in the 1980s. These bees are significantly more aggressive than the bees typically used in the United States, and as a result are more protective of their honey and rob other hives more often.

Finally, the common “Italian bee” type is represented by the “Prolific Queen.” These bees are favored by many bee keepers for their temperament and tendency to quickly build up brood and colony size. It should be noted that while these bee strains are commonly identified by the region they were originally found, they likely little resemble the original stock they are descended from.

Disease in Bee Lives

Disease in Bee Lives has been simplified into a general track you can manage through hygienic behavior. The indicator for this track is represented by a meeple in the shape of a varroa mite due to the current threat it poses to honey bees. By taking actions such as swarming and the “Clean Bees” action you can manage one of the biggest threats to your hive’s survival. The Zombie Fly, specifically, also makes an appearance in the game in the “Zombees” solo campaign card. Give it a try and see how your hive handles this threat.

Artistic rendering of a zombie bee
Beware the Zombees!

…Facts from Inside the Hive ~~~ Playing Bee Lives…