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Diagnosis of failing queens by inspecting the spermatheca

There are times when a queen bee is failing in some way that it becomes necessary to perform the unpleasant task of killing her. Most beekeepers feel a pang of compassion for the queen as they pinch her head and also a sense of economic loss for the money they spent to buy her. There is however a very simple test that can be performed on her dead body in a few seconds, that can at least provide some valuable information to beekeepers, so that the process does not have to be a complete waste. The technique is surprisingly easy and can be performed in the field with bare hands.

When the queen is mated (by 10-20 drones) the sperm is stored for her lifetime in an organ called the spermatheca. By removing and examining the small, liquid-filled sphere one can tell how much sperm was available to the queen at the time of her death. You may ask what good this information does you now that the queen is dead. Well, by confirming or denying your suspicions about her, you educate yourself over time as to the appearance of queens in different conditions and so make more accurate assessments.

This technique is especially important for queen breeders, queen producers and people who cage the queens for sale, by improving their culling accuracy.

honey bee spermatheca

Spermatheca from a well mated queen is tan colored.

depleted spermathecaDepleted spermatheca is translucent

 

honeybee spermatheca empty

Spermatheca from a virgin queen is clear.

 

Instructions

  • Kill the queen by pinching her head.
  • Grasp the last two abdominal segments (where the stinger is) with either your fingers or forceps and pull this segment away from the rest of the queen. Make sure you grab just the last two segments, and don't worry about being stung.
  • Discard the queen's body but keep the last two segments..
  • The spermatheca is buried in the mess, but is remarkably sturdy and can be squeezed out by rolling your fingers together, or between the backs of your thumbnails.
  • The spermatheca rolls out as a perfectly round sphere about 1 mm in diameter. It appears white because it is covered with a tracheal net to provide oxygen to the sperm. This covering is removed by rolling it for a few seconds between your fingers. Now it is ready to analyze.

1) If the spermatheca is perfectly clear, the queen has not been mated. She was a virgin queen.

2) If it is tan and opaque there was plenty of sperm to fertilize eggs. This was a well mated queen.

3) If it is milky and translucent, the supply of sperm was running low, either from age or inadequate mating.

It may take a couple examples to distinguish the tan / opaque condition from the milky / translucent appearance.

 

What to do with this information.

Once you determine the state of the queen's spermatheca, go back and take another look at the brood pattern, egg placement, condition of hive, queen cells, how did the queen look, how did she act?

The next time you see these signs you'll have a better idea of what condition the queen is in. More information makes for better decisions. With a little practice this technique will prove to be a valuable tool.

If the queen was newly purchased, and the spermatheca was not opaque, therefore not fully mated, let your queen producer know this information. This feedback is important so queen breeders can remedy the situation by providing more drones. Weather conditions, such as cloudiness or temperatures less than 69 degrees during mating periods can contribute to low sperm count. We can't change the weather but we can add drones colonies to give the best chance for success.


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