Finding, Marking and Introducing Queens
As any regular reader of my blog will know, I’m obsessed with two things; queens and Varroa mites. Queens are essential to honey bees, as mothers are to all families. Mites are horrible things that cause the death of colonies, so obviously, I need to keep their number down to safe levels. Here’s some practical tips about queens…
It’s amazing how sometimes, even in large colonies, queens are found exactly where you would expect them to be. Once you find a frame with eggs, the queen is not usually far away. In a timber hive, this is often towards the centre of the brood box. In poly hives, it could be anywhere – at least as likely at the edge of the box as in the centre. It’s not often that I need to see her majesty – the presence of eggs is usually good enough, but to remove or mark her, she must be found.
Each spring, I try to ensure all of my queens are marked and clipped. At this time, the occasional supercedure queen turns up. My records say she is a YDQ (yellow dot queen), for example, but the queen has no mark the following spring. When I remove a brood frame, I look down into the hive at the face of the next frame. She’s often on that one. If I struggle to find her, I do the trick where you arrange the frames in groups of two, which generally does the trick. If that doesn’t work, I give up unless I must find her – for example, to kill off an old queen or remove a nuc as part of swarm control. In that case, the shaker box (a brood box with a queen excluder fixed to the bottom) comes out.
Marking and Clipping
Marked queens are easy to find. Those marked with a yellow or white dot are the easiest for me to spot, but red, green or blue are not too bad. I might experiment with pink instead of red to see if it makes any difference. Clipping queens is a way to buy some time between inspections at swarming time because if they do swarm, they will soon return to the hive once they realise their queen is not with them. They will bugger off as soon as a virgin emerges, but that could be a week later.
I find the queen, pick her up by the wings, and then hold her at her thorax between my finger and thumb. Next, I clip a small part of a wing using nail scissors. Then I paint a dot on her thorax using a tiny paintbrush, a match stick, or something similar. The paint is in a small pot that looks a bit like nail varnish (it isn’t). I no longer use marking pens after a few mishaps where the paint ran out too fast. The queen goes back to her frame or into a cage. Picking up and handling queens is scary at first, but it becomes easier, like many other beekeeping tasks, after a while.
I have not seen any relationship between the colour of my queens and their performance or temperament. Sister queens – daughters of the same breeder queen – can look very different. Not always, though. I find the lighter-coloured queens tend to be easy to find, whereas dark ones have the cloak of invisibility. They are all gorgeous, regardless of colour.
Research, and my own experience, show that if sealed queen cells go into the incubator at 33 deg C, they will be darker than sister queens kept at 35 deg C. I don’t think it matters either way.
The bigger and uglier a colony is, the less likely it is to accept a new queen from different stock. Horrible bad-tempered bees populate around 10% of my hives. It doesn’t start that way; they are often little angels in the spring, but bad behaviour sets in as the colony reaches peak size. I generally kill off the queen in such colonies and replace her with something else. I want to remove that genetic line, but the bees are pretty happy with their genes and can kill the new queen and make their own. It’s annoying.
Whenever I have a beekeeping problem to solve, I go back to ‘Honey Farming’ by ROB Manley and my own book ‘Interviews with Beekeepers.’ Yes, that’s right, I forget what’s in my book and have to re-read it. Bee farmers have been introducing queens in their thousands forever, so they know what works. Manley was always trying to refine his version of a push-in cage. Many bee farmers in my book prefer to use a push-in cage for queen introduction.
Manley et al
I have recently made some cages based on Manley’s design which I’m hoping to use to introduce queens to hives. They are different to modern push-in cages in that they have two entrance/exit holes, one of which has a piece of queen excluder over it. The hole with the excluder is half filled with candy, whereas the other one (which a queen can walk down) is filled with candy and sealed off at first.
Manley would add a laying queen to a colony recently made queenless under the cage. The stiff wire mesh goes deep into the drawn comb, trapping the queen in a small area. Workers can smell her through the mesh. A few may even say hello via the tunnel with the excluder. After three days, he would return, remove any queen cells in the hive – there often are some – and unblock the other hole so the bees could release the queen within a few hours by munching the candy.
Most people use a standard queen cage suspended between frames, either with or without attendant bees, to introduce their queen. In my experience, a nucleus colony will accept a laying queen immediately. Therefore, with nucs, I snap the tab off the cage allowing the bees to eat the candy straight away. If I ever buy queens that come in the post, I put them into a nuc first. A week or two later, they are plump and happily laying eggs, ready to be introduced to a bigger hive. With a sizeable stroppy hive, I put the queen under a push-in cage on her ‘nuc’ frame, then add brood frames (including the caged queen) into the larger hive, which must be queenless. Then, three or four days later, I can remove any queen cells and release the queen.
When is the best time to change the queen? I prefer to do it at the end of summer, but I know others do it in spring. One problem with autumn is that the presence of thymol vapours (Varroa treatment) is not likely to help the bees feel accommodating toward the new queen. Also, if it doesn’t work out for any reason, there may not be time to add another queen and for her to lay a large batch of eggs for winter bees. I’ve noticed that we don’t get proper winter weather in my area until well into November, so there is a good window for re-queening.
Re-queening in spring is all very well if you happen to have mated queens ready to go that early in the season. Apart from some over-wintered nucs, I don’t, but my goal is to sell them to other beekeepers. My limited experience in selling queens is that it’s not worth it for me. Far better to put that queen into a nuc and sell the whole thing for £200+.
I have around 35 – 40 full-sized Langstroth colonies and a load of nucs. Sometimes that seems like a lot, but from the perspective of somebody trying to find the best breeder queens, it’s a small sample size. Consider Murray McGregor with his 4,500 hives. His queen unit, headed by Jolanta (@yolanda7979), has the pick of all of those queens – there is a substantial selection pressure. Some of my home-reared queens are fantastic, so I’ll keep at it. However, I think that buying breeder queens from a top source is probably an excellent way to go – to supplement my efforts and provide a comparison. There are some great queen breeders in the UK. I’m much more interested in raising queens than producing honey.
Incidentally, my criteria for selecting breeder queens are:
- Make lots of honey
- Pleasant temperament
- No attempts at swarming
The first one is a proxy for many other things; a hive that makes lots of honey is likely to be strong and healthy, which is what I want. The good temperament needs to be under as many conditions as possible, not just on a warm day in a nectar flow.
That’s all, folks, happy beekeeping.