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Info sheet "Is my hive queenless or queenright?"

Queenright vs. Queenless

Rocky Mountain Bee Supply, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved

One of the most common problems that we deal with are hives without queens.  No queen = a dead hive. There are several scenarios in which a colony can end up without a queen; however, there are also several methods for fixing the problem.

What does it mean to be “queenright” or “queenless”?   A hive with a queen is called “queenright”, a hive without a queen is called “queenless”. Queen bees are essential to a hive because they are the only bee capable of laying fertilized eggs. What determines a fertilized egg to become a worker bee or a queen bee?  Simply, what they are fed.  Queen bees are only fed royal jelly.

Worker bee larvae are fed royal jelly for only a few days, then they are fed pollen and honey, also known as “bee bread”.  This enables the colony to raise an “emergency queen”, if needed; however, the time they must convert worker larvae into a queen is limited.  As a worker larvae ages, it cannot be converted, and this is how many colonies fail at raising a replacement queen.  Even when they are successful at raising a queen, many times the queens are small, have poor brood patterns, and are considered inferior.

So, what happens when a hive has aged larvae and an old or missing queen?  Without a beekeeper’s intervention, they will eventually weaken and die out.  Many times, novice and even seasoned beekeepers miss the initial signs of a colony being queenless, and if they do notice it, they may misdiagnose a queenless hive for a “hive in transition”.  A hive in transition is in the process of replacing their old queen with a new queen, in which it may take a few weeks for a virgin queen to properly mate and begin laying eggs.  Virgin queens can be difficult to spot as their abdomens take a while to “blow out” and elongate, which distinguishes them from the worker bees.  Unknowingly, a beekeeper may introduce a newly mated queen into a hive in transition, in which this new queen will be summarily rejected and killed by the colony (they already have a queen!  How dare you introduce this impostor!) …leaving the beekeeper at a loss.  Truly, it is a Game of Combs!

So, what are the signs of a Queenless Hive?

Signs of a Queenless Hive

  1. Temper, temper!Often, queenless hives can be grumpy… they can be quick to bump your veil and even sting, sometimes boiling out of the hive like the Persian army at Thermopylae.  Beekeepers often report a high-pitched whine combined with a deep roar when working with queenless hives. Loitering bees on the front board or just hanging around catching sun rays, or lazy on the front board is not a good sign.  Bees coming and going, bringing back nectar and pollen are signs that all is well.

 

  1. No Sign of Eggs & Brood:Because the queen is the only bee in the hive who can lay fertilized worker bee eggs, the first sign of a queenless hive is a lack of eggs and young larvae.  This is why it is so important to do regular hive inspections (every 10 to 14 days during season).  A queenless colony caught early enough can be remedied before too many workers have died off.  It is important to note that this same symptom doesn’t always mean the hive is queenless.  Sometimes queens stop laying for various reasons:  she could be too old, she has become infertile for some reason (some varroa mite treatments can cause queens to become sterile), she wasn’t mated thoroughly, she is injured, or she may be taking an intermittent break to control the spread of disease.  In any event, if she doesn’t resume laying, or she is laying drone brood, then she will need to be replaced immediately.

 

  1. A Drop in Population:During the active season, the lifetime of a worker is five to six weeks, so worker bees are always dying off for one reason or another; however, in a queenless colony, they are not replaced.  Healthy, fertile queens are capable of laying eggs almost constantly. During peak season, a quality queen can lay over 3,000 eggs per day, so she is constantly replacing the dying population and growing the colony.  In a queenless hive, the population will start to drop rapidly, and by the time the beekeeper takes notice, it may have been queenless for a while.

 

  1. Lots of Honey and Pollen:With no brood to care for, nurse bees become foragers and the beekeeper will see an increase in the pollen and honey stores within the hive.  This is not to be confused with “honey bound” hives.  Many times, during strong nectar flows, queenright colonies will go into overdrive storing pollen and honey in the brood nest…crowding their queen out of laying area, thus the term “honey bound”.  This can lead to swarming. To resolve a honey bound hive,  a beekeeper can add another medium box on top of the bees to give them more room to store honey and replace three to four frames from the middle of the brood nest in one of the deep boxes with empty frames (undrawn blank foundation) to give the queen more room to lay in. Prevention of honey bound hives requires beekeepers to make sure they are doing regular hive inspections and adding boxes when necessary when the bees need to expand.

 

  1. Queen Cups or Queen Cells:Queen cups can often be seen in healthy, queenright hives.  Colonies often make cups and tear them down so that they are always prepared in case they should need one.  A queenless colony will always try to make a replacement queen…it’s how they’ve survived for millions of years.  Knowing the difference between a queen cup and a queen cell, and where a queen cell is located on the frame, can help in determining what’s going on with your hive.  Queen cells on the bottom of a frame are typically swarm cells…bees will usually swarm during nectar flows when food is abundant and/or they are running out of room for honey storage in their hive…it is how they propagate the species.  They are planning to take the queen with a portion of the hive and will leave daughters behind to take over.  Supersedure queen cells are usually located in the middle of a frame, and have been drawn because the bees are attempting to replace their queen because she may be too old and her egg laying and pheromone is waning, she may be poorly mated, infertile, sick, injured, or dead.  Whatever the reason, they have sought out a viable egg to reproduce her heir.  Sometimes this works out for the colony, sometimes it doesn’t.  When you see a queen cell, check it out to see what stage of development it is in.  If it is capped, you have a queen getting ready to emerge. Is it uncapped?  If you have a pen light, shine it up inside the cell…do you see larvae with royal jelly?  If so, you have a developing queen in there.  It takes a queen 16 days to hatch (8 days from the day it was capped). Is the cell empty?  This could mean a few different scenarios.  A jagged edge on the tip and/or the tip of the cap hanging there like an opened tin can, your queen may have already hatched.  In this case, you have a virgin queen in your colony…she still needs to do a few mating flights before she will start laying…this is known as a “hive in transition”.  Virgin queens can be difficult to spot as they are small and fast…and she may be out on a mating flight.  An empty cell can also mean that the colony tried to produce a queen but didn’t have a fertilized egg to put in there…this hive will eventually die out unless a new queen is introduced.

 

  1. Laying Worker: Honeybees are always trying to survive, even in the direst of circumstances.  A hive that has been queenless for a while may develop what is known as a “laying worker”.  In the absence of the pheromone of brood, a worker bee (who is also a female and possesses ovaries) will take up the position of queen.  Unfortunately, because she can only lay unfertilized eggs, all her eggs will only develop into male drones. A sign of a laying worker is multiple eggs in a single cell, eggs hanging off the side of a cell etc.  Remember, a laying worker does not have the elongated abdomen of a queen and she cannot properly lay an egg in the bottom of the cell.  Another sign of a laying worker is a disproportionate population of drones and drone brood.  Capped drone brood looks puffy or bullet-shaped compared to the flat brood of female workers.  A hive with a laying worker will eventually perish, which is why it is so important to do regular hive inspections to correct these situations before they become detrimental to the colony.  There are a few methods to correcting a laying worker situation that must be dealt with before introducing a queen.  Give us a call, we can help.

The above signs of a queenless hive are just that, symptoms and are not absolute indicators by themselves.  A hive that is truly queenless will exhibit many of the signs listed above, and it isn’t a bad idea to have your mentor or a seasoned beekeeper come take a peek to confirm your suspicions.  If you don’t have access to a mentor, there are a few things you can do to test your hypothesis.

 

Another Reason to Have More Than One Hive

 

All beekeepers at one time or another will have to deal with a queenless hive…having the resources to correct issues like this are why most beekeepers keep more than one hive.  Having multiple hives allows beekeepers compare/contrast hive development, share resources, and serve as a backup plan when things go south.  If you only have one hive, then you will have to ask a fellow beekeeper for a frame of brood or purchase a queen, if it is determined that you need to do so.  Here’s how to test if you are queenright:

 

Testing Method 1

 Remove a middle brood frame from your suspected queenless hive and shake or brush the bees from that frame back into the hive.  Set that frame aside.  Take a frame of fresh eggs and wet brood from one of your queenright hives, mark the top of this frame with a big “X”, and place it into the open space of your “queenless” hive.  Put the frame from the queenless hive into the queenright hive so you don’t have an empty space in there.  In three to five days, go back into the “queenless” hive and pull the frame you marked with an “X”.  Do you see queen cups or queen cells being drawn out on this frame?  If you do, then that means that your hive is in fact queenless and they are trying to raise another one.  If you don’t see any queen cells, then something else is going on.

Testing Method 2

 

Using a queen cage or a queen clip, capture a viable queen from one of your queenright hives.  Place this queen on top of the frames of your queenless hive and observe their behavior. 

The hive is queenless:  the bees come to the queen, fanning their wings, sticking their butts up in the air.  They stick their tongues into the cage, attempting to feed her or groom her. If you run your finger gently over the cage, the bees move away gently and come back.

The hive is queenright*:  the bees swarm over her cage trying to sting through it or try to bite her foot pads through the cage.  If you run your finger gently over the cage, the bees do not want to move away…they aggressively grab on, intent on killing her. If left alone, they will pile on to the cage and attempt to “cook” her by heating her up. This is known as “balling”.

*meaning there is a queen in there somewhere in the form of:

  • A virgin queen you haven’t been able to spot yet.
  • A queen cell that they have already recognized as their new queen.
  • A laying worker who they recognize as their queen.
  • A queen who is failing, but still has enough pheromone to muster allegiance.

Trying to introduce a new queen during any of the above situations typically fails.  A hive that believes it is queenright will reject the introduction of a new queen by killing her or failing to feed her, so she starves to death.  Sometimes, even in a hive that is queenless, the pheromone of the old queen may be so strong as to make them think they are queenright when they are not.  This is usually the case with a laying worker whose brood gives off pheromone.  Also, with Africanized bees, where requeening with a gentler queen may not be successful because the old queen’s pheromones are still very strong in the hive.  In this case, it helps to smoke the hive thoroughly to remove the pheromone and give the bees 24 to 48 hours to realize that they are queenless.  Additionally, it is wise to invest in a requeening frame that will give a new queen some added protection as well as help spread her pheromone during the introduction period. 

 

Queenless to Queenright

Once you have determined that your hive is queenless, and you have taken steps to prepare them to be queenright again, you basically have three choices: 

  • Introducing a newly mated queen which you can purchase from a local beekeeper or bee supply or order online for overnight delivery.
  • Introducing a capped queen cell from another hive or from a queen producer.
  • Giving the bees a frame of fresh eggs, wet brood, and nurse bees and letting them raise their own queen. If you don’t have another hive to pull resources from, you may try asking another beekeeper, a club, or a bee supply if they can provide you with one.

The best method will depend on how long your colony has been queenless and how many worker bees and capped brood you have left.  If you have no eggs, but small larvae, capped brood, and plenty of worker bees…your bees could still raise their own queen…you probably still have nurse bees so you could give them a frame of eggs/wet brood from another colony and they can raise their own queen.  You could also introduce a queen cell and let her hatch at this point.  You could also introduce an adult mated queen…she will require a 2 to 3-day introduction period.

If you have no eggs, no larvae, but still some capped brood, and worker bees, you could introduce a frame of eggs/wet brood from another colony, a queen cell, or an adult mated queen.

If you have no eggs, no larvae, minimal to no capped brood, and worker bees, your best bet would probably bee queen cell, or even better, an adult mated queen.

If you have no eggs, no larvae, no capped brood, and just a bunch of worker bees, you would probably need to go with an adult mated queen and hope that your worker bees live long enough (21 days from egg to hatch for a worker bee) for the new crop of bees to hatch and keep the hive going.

The quickest way to resolve a queenless hive is to purchase an already mated queen and introduce her into the hive.  After her introduction period and release (methods vary) she can begin laying.  Remember, a period of broodlessness will show up with a decline in population of bees; however, once your new queen starts laying, you will see the population surge again. When purchasing a queen, go to a reputable source.  You can purchase queens anywhere from $22 to $50+ depending on the breed, and the availability.  You do not have to purchase the same breed of queen as the breed of your current colony.  An Italian queen does not care if she’s in a hive with Carniolans.  Her subsequent offspring will be Italian…so, as the old population dies off, the new hatchlings will be the same breed as the mated queen you purchased.  Some queen suppliers will mark your queen for you for an additional fee.  You will also pay an overnight LIVE ANIMAL shipping fee, which can be a little steep.  Call your local bee supply or bee club and see what the availability is and if they have any on hand.

Let Them Raise Their Own Queen (Time Isn’t of the Essence)

So, if you have the time and resources and/or mated queens are not available for purchase, you might want to let your bees raise their own queen by introducing a frame of eggs/wet brood from another hive.  It takes 16 days for the queen to hatch, and another week or so for her to get mated.  It may take an additional week or two for her ovaries to blow out so she can begin laying.  You’re looking at about 3 to 4 weeks of no hatching brood and your population can take a big nosedive during that time. If this is during the peak of season and there will be plenty of drones available for her to mate with, this is a great option; however, if it is late in the season and she may not get mated very well or at all, then do yourself a favor and buy a mated queen and have her shipped to you.

 

Introducing a New Queen

Before installing a new queen into the colony, make sure that you have prepared your hive.  If you had very little bees left, consider placing one or two frames of capped brood with nurse bees or shake some nurse bees from a stronger hive into the queenless hive to help boost the population until the queen’s new brood can hatch.  If you had a laying worker, you would need to make sure that she is removed a few days before the new queen is introduced.  Go through your frames…make sure that you do not have a queen, or eggs.  If you see any queen cells/supersedure cells, cut them out and remove them. Consider purchasing a requeening frame to help spread the queen’s pheromone during the introduction period.

When you order your queen, she will typically come Next Day Air in a small box with several attendants.  The attendants may be loose around her cage or they may be inside the cage with her, or both.  Ask the supplier how they will come.  Queen cages can vary…typically they are small wooden cages with one side screened, and a hole with a cork plug or a candy plug.  Some cages may be small plastic ones with a candy plug.  You never want to throw a queen right into the hive…she must be introduced over a period of three to five days.  Typically, you would want to hang her cage on one of the middle brood frames…usually by pressing the cage into the wax an inch or two below the top bar.  Make sure you face the  screen part of the cage towards the front or back of the hive so the bees can access her and feed her…if the screen part faces the comb, they cannot access her and she will starve to death.  If this worries you, purchase a queen cage holder that will hold the cage safely and at the proper depth for introduction.  In about three days, check your queen…observe the behavior described above in Testing Methods 1 and 2.  This will tell you if the queen has been accepted, then you can release her…if not, then give her a few more days.  If there is a candy plug in your queen cage, it will take the bees about three days to eat through the candy plug…typically enough time for acceptance…and the queen will release naturally.  You would want to check to see if she released…then check to see if you can find her on the frames and see if she has started laying.  She may have already started laying…or it can take up to a week for her to start.  Give her a chance.  If using a requeening frame, you will have to transfer the queen into the frame, then hang the frame in the place of one of the middle brood frames until she can be released in a few days.  Remember to replace the requeening frame with the regular frame after acceptance.

Be on Your “A” Game!

A good rule of thumb is to inspect your hives every 10 to 14 days.  Always make sure that when you are inspecting your hives, that you check for fresh eggs and larvae.  If you can catch a queenless hive early, you can keep them alive and thriving.  Some beekeepers keep notes on their hive by keeping a small notebook in their toolbox, others simply write on the inside lid of the top cover, there are even apps you can download on your smart phone.  Whatever method you choose, keeping notes on your hive can help you track their development.  If you do find out that your hive is queenless, don’t wait to act to correct the situation.  A queenless hive is eventually a dead hive. 

Please don’t hesitate to call us if you need guidance.  We do have master beekeepers on call if you are within a reasonable driving distance from downtown Colorado Springs.  Fees and mileage rates vary.  Contact us via e-mail: RMBS@rockymountainbeesupply.com or call us at the store:  719-375-5094.