They Are Not Necessarily Queenless
When I was a beginner beekeeper, I thought I knew most things about the noble art of ‘bee bothering’, but I was wrong. In my case, the beginner years were the first five. For those with just one or two hives, it could easily be longer, and for bee farmers, it would undoubtedly be less – probably a couple of years to see most things. Anyway, I used to get very concerned about some hives and wondered, “have I lost my queen?”
Experience has taught me that most of those ‘queenless’ hives are not queenless at all. Either the bees have changed their queen, and the new one hasn’t got going yet, or she’s just stopped laying for a while. In a busy hive, virgins can be challenging to spot, although my trusty assistant (the mole) found one the other day. I find the lighter-coloured queens much easier to locate than the dark ones – they seem to stand out more. If most of my workers were the ‘orange’ type, the black queens would be easier. Sometimes they are queenless, and you get laying workers a few weeks after the brood is gone.
Adding a frame of brood containing eggs and young larvae to a colony can quickly put your mind at rest. If the bees draw queen cells on the new frame a few days later, they will probably be without a queen. In this situation, I don’t always want these new queen cells to develop – it depends on the state of the colony. With a large population of bees, plenty of sealed brood and pollen coming into the hive, they can safely be allowed to ‘get on with it’. Some people would knock down all of the cells except one. In May or June, that’s probably a good idea, but later on, I don’t think it matters. If I do that, I want it to be unsealed so that I can see that there is a healthy larva inside.
The honey bee colony is a super organism in which bees of different ages perform different tasks. They use their keen sense of smell and sensitivity to vibrations to communicate. If the colony has very little or no sealed brood, it becomes unbalanced. There are plenty of bees, but they are older bees whose typical jobs are foraging and guarding the hive. The younger bees do the housekeeping, feed the babies and care for the queen. I am not convinced that old bees will be able to make the best of queens when presented with a test frame. I also think that they are less willing to accept a newly introduced queen.
If you have a queenless hive with no brood, it’s worth considering your options. If it’s small, then is it really worth saving? You don’t want to leave it until your frames are ruined with scattered drone comb (laying workers). A queen cell would be no good – it takes too long, and a mated queen would surely be better off in a newly made nucleus colony. I’d shake it out or combine it with a queen-right hive.
The same issues exist with a strong but queenless colony, but at least they can bring in a crop of honey. If I have brood to spare from other hives, I will add a couple of frames and a mated queen. The brood should stop the older bees from becoming laying workers, and, you never know, they might accept the queen and become a balanced colony once more. Sealed brood will soon become nurse bees. You don’t want to give them eggs because they may decide to make their own queen and kill the new one.
What’s worse than a queenless hive? Perhaps one with a dud queen in it. She’s in there somewhere, but she’s broken – either not laying at all or laying just drones. Last week I re-queened a hive that had a damaged queen – see photo. No idea how that happened. It was one I’d sold to another beekeeper, so I felt obliged to replace her free of charge. She was happily plodding about but unsurprisingly unable to lay eggs. I gave them a frame of sealed brood, killed the damaged queen and introduced a mated queen that had only been out of her nuc for an hour.
One of the many good things about raising your own queens is that you usually have a laying queen to hand. When re-queening a hive, the best way is to add a laying queen shortly after removing the old one. If the bees are left for a day, they will start queen cells and possibly object to the new one. I have started using the JZ-BZ queen cages to introduce queens – the bees have her out in less than an hour. Another way is direct introduction, which works well, according to Stuart Mackenzie, a beekeeper on Anglesey. He picked up the method from Peter Little:
“The solution to the queen introduction problem is quite simple when you have your own LAYING mated queens to hand. Direct introductions have the highest success rates, and since it’s all done in a single 2-minute visit, you save huge amounts of time. No more 7-day waits and cancelling queen cells, No more coming back in 4 days to open the tab, then back 3 days after to make sure she’s out of the cage, then a week later for an egg check before you can be sure the deal is done.
It was Brother Adam’s preferred method, and I’ve not heard of anyone before him using it. It was Pete Little, God bless him, who put me on to it along with other gems and always with the promise of more whenever you had time for a chat (I wish I’d had more time).”Stuart Mackenzie
Once you introduce a queen that has been in a cage for a few days, it gets trickier – she’s not laying anymore, and the bees can tell. There are plenty of options, and nothing is 100% safe. Perhaps the safest way with such a queen is to make up a nucleus colony for her. Then, once she’s been laying for a while, you can add the nucleus frames to a brood box and unite it with the queenless one. That’s a lot of time and effort, so many people use a push-in cage instead.
Why would a colony go queenless? If the beekeeper damaged or killed her, they would make emergency cells and replace her, assuming she’d been laying. If she swarmed, there would be swarm cells from which her successor would emerge. I think one of the leading causes is queens not making it back home after their mating flight. You know they have a virgin queen and wait patiently for her to get mated and start laying, but it never happens. Maybe she got lost, went into the wrong hive, or got eaten by a bird or hornet – who knows? Stuff happens.
Time for a quick update on my use of Formic-Pro to treat hives that had missed their winter oxalic treatment. Ten were treated, and three queens were missing after treatment (30%). The bees changed the only two blue dot queens (2020), and the other one to go was a white dot (2021). The seven queens that sailed on blissfully unaware of any drama were from 2021 (5 of them) or 2022 (two queens). I was going to re-queen the older ones anyway, so I’m okay with the outcome. I was delighted with formic-pro and will use it again if needed. Still, hopefully, my winter treatments will make it a rare event.