Mated Queen Bees

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Queenlessness

For most of its life, a honeybee colony has an active and well-accepted queen bee, which the colony rallies around. The queen herself, with her unique pheromone signature, is a key component of binding a colony together.

There are times, however, when a colony finds itself without a queen bee. This is known as queenlessness.

A honeybee colony can lose a queen for several reasons. Like any living creature, a queen honeybee is vulnerable to sickness, injury, old age, etc. But queen honeybees, being insects, are also vulnerable to the peculiarities of the insect world. Sometimes a colony intentionally kills its queen due to a disruption in pheromone signatures or some other environmental stress. Sometimes another virgin queen will appear—perhaps the colony raised another queen bee. An eventual fight to the death is almost guaranteed if a virgin queen emerges.

From both the beehive’s and beekeeper’s perspectives, queenlessness is precarious. The colony’s days are numbered if it cannot get a queen going. Time is of the essence. The longer a colony remains queenless, the greater its odds of perishing become.

When a colony suddenly goes queenless, it has only four or five days to raise a new queen. A queenless colony needs young worker bee larvae to raise a new queen. Once a queen is lost, there remains only a four- or five-day period in which young worker larvae will be present in the hive. After this period, all the larvae will be too mature for queen-raising.

A honeybee colony detects queenlessness when the queen’s pheromone disappears. This happens amazingly quickly. It usually takes a colony only about four to five hours to discover that no pheromone is being shared and that the colony is now without a queen. This is when the colony begins an agitated buzzing sound known as a queenless roar. Likely, this roar is an additional and urgent signal that queen-rearing must start, and it must begin immediately.

An experienced beekeeper can use this telltale roar (or its absence) as an essential tool when conducting a hive inspection. Another telltale sign of queenlessness is the disorganization of the bees. The bees have little to rally around in a colony with no queen and, eventually, no larvae. The colony has no larvae to feed, so the nurse bees wander around aimlessly.

As part of any bee inspection, a beekeeper should always be on the lookout for queenlessness and its telltale signs. Here at Wildflower Meadows, our beekeepers know that anytime a colony is roaring, or the bees appear disorganized, a further inspection is in order.

How to Find the Queen Bee

Do you struggle with finding a queen bee?  Don’t be too hard on yourself.  Even here at Wildflower Meadows—with all our experience and years of beekeeping—we occasionally find ourselves scratching our heads, wondering why such a simple task can sometimes be so challenging.

Before you set out on your search, make sure you even need to find the queen. As a beekeeper, unless you are working for Wildflower Meadows or raising queens, you don’t have to look for a queen that often. The main reason for having to locate a queen is when you wish to requeen. In that case, you have no choice but to find the old queen to remove her.

Another possible reason to find a queen is when you want to divide a colony or transfer frames of bees from one colony to another. Surprisingly, even when dividing colonies and transferring frames, you don’t always have to find the queen. So, for example, look at this video, and you will discover a straightforward way of dividing a colony without even having to look for the queen.

Patience, persistence, focus, and relaxation are the key to finding a queen bee. When searching for a queen, the first tip we suggest is to be patient with yourself. Finding a queen is a skill that a beekeeper develops over time.

A helpful strategy is to play the odds. The queen will most likely be near the center of the brood nest, particularly on frames with open cells for her to lay in. That’s her preferred area because, after all, she’s the one laying the brood. However, always keep in mind that queens do move around. Sometimes you will be surprised to discover your queen bee in the strangest place – on the lid, walking on the honey, or cruising around inside the box. She can wander anywhere. However, more often than not, odds are she’s hard at work laying eggs in the general brood area. Why not start there?

Nevertheless, before diving into this promising brood area, it’s best to remove and inspect a frame or two at the ends of the hive. Start with a quick check of the end frames (not to mention the lid) and set those aside. Why? By doing this, you will free up some working space and gain space to comfortably separate the remaining frames in the hive. Now you can focus on the high-probability areas.

You want to relax your vision. A soft and relaxed vision will enable you to spot something that looks just a little different. Also, remember that sometimes, your eyes will pick up the unusual pattern of the queen’s retinue, which will naturally direct you to the right spot. If you’re a beginner, after checking each side of a frame, pause, take a quick break, then give both sides of the frame a second look. This saves time in the long run because missing a queen right in front of you will waste time when you fruitlessly look through all the remaining frames.

Keep a routine going. Have a systematic approach to each frame, so you don’t overlook areas. For example, you can begin at the top of the frame, scanning down the frame from left to right. Or you can start at the left of the frame and scan up and down across the frame. Just be thorough and consistent.

Be mindful of the conditions around you. This is crucial since you will hold the frames outside the hive for some time. If there is robbing in the apiary, use a robbing cloth. If the weather is chilly, you must work relatively quickly to keep the brood from chilling. If conditions are sunny, be mindful of keeping the frames exposed to direct sunlight for too long, as prolonged sunlight can dry out the larva and damage the brood. Also, queen bees tend to avoid the sun, so holding a frame up to the sunlight can encourage a queen to run to the other side of the frame, and you can miss her altogether.

Understand that there will be times when you just can’t find the queen bee and strike out. This is normal and happens even to experienced beekeepers. We would advise that you probably don’t want to disturb the colony after two rounds of searching. It is best to call it quits, put everything back together, and come back another time.

Spring Requeening

Although there are advantages to requeening a colony in the summer or fall, traditionally, beekeepers requeen colonies in the spring. One of the best reasons to requeen early in the season is to prevent swarming. Spring requeening reduces a colony’s tendency to swarm because, generally, colonies with very young queens tend to settle in with their new queen. It is older queens that are more likely to swarm. Why? Perhaps the new and young queen’s powerful pheromones signal the colony to keep her in place. Also, the requeening can distract a colony from swarming—at least while the new queen is being accepted.

A distinct advantage of installing a new queen in the spring is that a young queen brings enthusiastic and youthful energy into the hive at the very start of the season. This recipe for vigorous egg-laying leads to large population growth before the honey flows down the road. It’s perfect timing. This also means that the colony’s population should stay considerably large heading into the later part of the year and winter.

Besides the bees themselves, beekeepers who requeen in the spring also gain some advantages from this timing. Early in the season, colony populations are generally smaller, making it easier to locate the old queen. Also, if a new honey flow is just starting, the bees will tend to be on their best behavior and not as apt to behave defensively. During a honey flow, adult bees get locked into foraging. A colony will put up with a lot of beekeeper activity during a honey flow. The bees are focused on foraging and colony growth and are less apt to sting.

However, there are a couple of downsides to requeening in the spring.  The first is that spring weather can be turbulent, meaning that rainy and cool weather can damper a beekeeper’s ability to work the bees. A preordered queen’s date may not match the ideal weather for opening and work with a colony. Summer weather, in general, is more stable.  Running into adverse weather can also actually affect queen acceptance. If a new queen is introduced right before a long spell of inclement weather, the bees could go hungry and agitated, hampering the acceptance of the new queen.

Another downside to spring requeening is the possibility of additional queens or queens-in-the-making in the hive during requeening.  Beekeepers who requeen in spring, like all beekeepers, should always be on the lookout for natural queen cells during the requeening process. These natural queen cells are more apt to be present during the spring than any other season and must be eliminated while requeening.  One or more new and feisty virgin queens emerging from one of these queen cells is the last thing that a beekeeper wants to see during requeening. No one wants a newly purchased and precious queen having to deal with a battle royale before she even gets started!

How Long Can I Keep a Queen in its Cage?

When you receive a queen bee, ideally, you want to be ready to install her as quickly as possible. Queen honeybees are not meant to live in cages over the long haul.

Sometimes, however, situations can prevent you from installing a queen immediately. Perhaps it’s challenging weather, an unanticipated work issue, family matters, or some other urgent situation that can prevent you from installing a queen upon arrival.

If this is the case, it’s good to know that with the proper care and handling, a queen bee can live in a cage with attendants for a week or even more with consideration. This is not ideal, however. The longer the queen remains in a cage outside of a colony, the longer she is exposed to the dangers of being outside of a colony of bees. She also potentially begins to lose her pheromone signature, impairing acceptance.

At Wildflower Meadows, we have generally found that queens that spend an extended period in queen cages can sometimes tend not to perform as well over the long haul. This could be due to several factors, such as:

  • The ability of just a few attendant bees in the cage to control the temperature and humidity is not close to that of a full beehive. Therefore, the queen bee is subject to broader and more potentially damaging temperature fluctuations when in a cage than inside a colony.
  • While acceptable, the quality of the candy in the cage is nowhere near as nutritious as the natural food in a colony.
  • Sometimes, the attendant bees can become stressed or die, limiting their ability to care for the queen.
  • There is no water in the cage, so the bees and queen can suffer from dehydration.
  • Other unknown stresses of being caged could affect the well-being of the queen and attendants in the cage.

So, what can be done to mitigate these potential problems?

First, if you can’t install your queen immediately, you want to store your queen at room temperature and in a relatively dark and calm place in your house. There should be no drafts or extended exposure to sunlight. You must also keep the queen away from household chemicals, especially pesticides.

Then, twice daily—in the morning and evening—give the cage a drop of clean water. You can apply the water to the cage with your fingertip so that some water drips in. The attendant bees will lap up the water. Don’t give any more water than this. This is not a case where more is better. Too much water can chill the bees or melt the candy, creating a mess and possibly stressing or even damaging the queen bee.

Keep an eye on the attendants. If more than one or two die, you may need to remove them and add new attendants to the cage. This is a tricky proposition and one you should avoid.

If you need to store the queens for more than a few days, the ideal way to hold queens is to establish a queen bank inside a strong, healthy colony. This is the tried-and-true way of storing and maintaining queens.

Again, your objective should always be to install and introduce a queen as soon as possible. The colony is her home, and laying eggs in a healthy colony is her calling and way of life!

Why Do Beekeepers Need to Purchase Queen Bees?

While each of the honeybees in a hive plays their own role, the queen bee is unique in that she influences the behavior and performance of an individual colony in a way that no other single bee can. She is the genetic backbone of the colony—and all the bees, as her offspring, carry her genetic signature.

As a result, beekeepers know that they can control the performance of a colony to a significant extent simply by managing the quality of the queen bee in the hive. There are two pieces to assessing a queen’s quality: the performance of her offspring, and of course, her own performance. Both are vital.*

For assessing a queen’s offspring’s performance, a beekeeper commonly considers the following:

  • Disease Resistance: Is the colony robust and able to withstand diseases such as American foulbrood?
  • Temperament: Are the bees gentle and easy to work with?
  • Honey Production: In conditions of good nectar flow, are the bees making a considerable amount of honey?
  • Honey Consumption: Does the colony save its stores or consume large amounts of honey, requiring extra supplemental feeding?
  • Population Control: Does the colony have the desired population at the right time of year?
  • Mite Resistance: Does the queen carry the VSH trait to control the spread of parasitic mites?
  • Swarming Tendency: Does the colony seem to want to swarm more than normal?
  • Overwintering Success: Does the colony appear very weak in the spring?

In assessing a queen’s own performance, the beekeeper also considers the queen herself:

  • Laying Performance: Is the queen laying enough eggs and in a tight brood pattern?
  • Quantity of Drones: Is the queen laying more drones than worker eggs?
  • Health: Is the queen injured?
  • Age: Is she young and vigorous, or aging and on the way out?
  • Presence: Is she even in the hive, or did she perish somewhere along the way?

So, why do beekeepers need to purchase queen bees? The first reason is to manage the genetics of the offspring. The second is to manage the performance of the queen herself.

The third, and perhaps most common reason for purchasing a queen bee, is to enable the beekeeper to easily divide or split an existing colony. All new colonies need queens. The easiest, most reliable, and most surefire way for a beekeeper to obtain a quality queen of known genetics is to purchase that queen from a reputable queen breeder.

*With an instrumentally inseminated breeder queen, the queen’s own performance is more important than the offspring’s because the genetics in the offspring are already largely predetermined due to the selection of the parents.

How Often Should a Beekeeper Requeen?

While queen honeybees can theoretically live for up to five years, they rarely do. As queen bees age, their productivity declines. A three-year-old queen is generally less prolific than a two-year-old queen. Even a two-year-old queen can sometimes be less prolific than a queen who’s only one year old – which is why many beekeepers prefer to requeen annually.

Many beekeeping authorities recommend requeening colonies after a certain point in the queen’s life, usually after one year. The theory is that by replacing an older queen, a colony will be more robust and successful, due to a younger queen’s greater productivity. A younger queen creates a higher volume of bees than an older queen, which results in more bees for pollination and greater honey production, and also more bees for expanding colony counts.

Young queen bees also tend to have a stronger pheromone signature. When a young queen’s powerful pheromones are present, a beehive knows it has a quality, vigorous queen in hand. As a result, the colony sees little need to replace her. Likely for the same reason, colonies with younger queens are less likely to swarm than colonies with older queens. A young queen seems to set a beehive at ease and enable the bees in the hive to relax and focus on the business at hand.

Even though requeening annually has its benefits, there are equally strong arguments against this practice. The policy of requeening every colony, every year fails to consider the very real possibility that an existing queen may be a superstar with several years of performance left. What’s the benefit of replacing a proven winner with a new queen, that may or may not match the existing queen’s excellent performance?

Regular requeening can also become costly – in terms of both the cost of the new queen itself, as well as the time it takes to find and introduce a new queen each year. Plus, there is always the risk that the introduction of a new queen may not even be successful, leaving the colony without any queen at all!

At Wildflower Meadows, we believe it makes the most sense to consider each colony on a case-by-case basis. When deciding whether to requeen, it’s important to assess whether the existing queen is still laying a quality brood pattern. A queen on the decline in her later years will typically begin to show a “spotty” brood pattern, rather than the tight, circular brood pattern of a young, vigorous queen. Any queen with a consistently spotty brood pattern is always a candidate for requeening. Most queens that are more than two or three years old are also excellent candidates for requeening. Queens of that age are not far away from an almost certain drop-off in productivity, making requeening the best decision for maintaining a strong, productive hive.

Two Queens in a Hive

Most beekeepers know that a hive only contains a single queen. However, this isn’t necessarily always true. There are times when a colony may have two queens; and while it’s usually short-lived, the scenario probably happens more often than most beekeepers realize.

As we know, a queen bee releases pheromones to make the worker bees aware of her presence, and that she’s actively laying fertile eggs. As the queen ages, these pheromones naturally weaken, which lets the worker bees know it’s time to start the process of raising a new queen. Worker bees may plan to supersede an older queen when they notice a decline in her productivity as well.

An instance where a hive has multiple queens may occur when a new queen hatches while the old queen is still living. After a daughter hatches, one of the following scenarios will likely transpire – either the worker bees will kill the old queen, the two queens will fight to the death, or the hive will swarm. Unfortunately, there is no way for beekeepers to know how their hive will handle this situation, as there are a lot of factors in play.

More often than not, an old queen will not live long after a new queen has hatched. If the newly hatched queen doesn’t kill her, the worker bees themselves may do so. Worker bees will kill their old queen when they notice she’s consistently laying infertile eggs, and they’re comfortable that the new queen is mated and producing well.  A colony will typically prefer the newer and younger queen who, of the two, more often than not will have the stronger performance and pheromone signature.

However, if the older queen is still performing well, the worker bees may alternatively decide to separate the queens into different areas of the hive. This prevents the queens from killing one another and allows the hive to be temporarily more productive – at least until nature inevitably takes its course.

Many times, beekeepers fail to realize they are dealing with multiple queens.  Typically, when a beekeeper is requeening a colony, he or she will stop looking for a queen as soon as the old queen is spotted, not realizing there may actually be yet another queen in the colony.  This can be a challenge when beekeepers are actively trying to introduce a new high-quality queen they have purchased. If a beekeeper attempts to introduce a new queen, thinking the hive is queenless when it’s not, the colony will, unfortunately, almost certainly not accept the new queen – which will likely end in a failed queen installation.

What Makes a Quality Queen Honeybee?

Of all the bees in the hive, the queen is by far the most important member of the colony.  Without her, the colony is certain to perish. The colony will likely thrive with a well-mated queen, but the extent of her success is partially dependent on the quality of the genetics of the queen bee herself.

What makes a quality queen bee? The answer to this question is actually two-fold. Unlike a worker bee, a queen honeybee must be graded on two scales – her own performance, as well as the performance of her offspring. She is graded on these two entirely separate criteria.

The queen bee’s performance is measured by her brood production. A quality queen honeybee needs to lay the right amount of brood at the right time of year, all in a consistent and tight brood pattern. By consistently laying eggs in a tight pattern, a well-performing queen efficiently utilizes her brood space and keeps a good, healthy, and uniform production of new worker bees. Her egg laying should be prolific when it matters and lighten up during the offseason, or during times of drought. She should be well-mated, healthy, and long-lived, giving off plenty of quality queen pheromone, to let bees in the hive know that she is present and getting the job done.

What’s unique about queen honeybees, however, is that their worth is not only measured in their own performance, but also in the performance of their offspring. While a queen needs to be healthy and productive, it is perhaps more important that she produce offspring who perform well. What good is a queen that demonstrates excellent performance, but produces offspring that is ill-tempered, or of poor quality in their own right?

A quality queen bee must carry and deliver quality genetics to her offspring. It is her offspring that will achieve a successful beehive after all. If the worker bees are not of quality stock, the entire colony will suffer – which is why the right genetics are so critical in queen honeybee breeding.  A quality queen will pass along desired genetic traits known as “phenotypes” to her worker bee daughters, such as disease resistance, temperament, honey production, early season buildup, low swarming tendencies, color, etc.

At Wildflower Meadows our focus also needs to be two-fold. We take every step possible to make sure the queens we sell are well-mated and excellent performers. Of course, equally important, we constantly strive to breed and select queens that carry the optimum genetics. We want each of the worker bees in the hive to perform at their best possible level, meeting the standards of excellence that both we and our customers demand.

Breeder Queens vs. Mated Queens: What’s the Difference?

Beekeepers looking to purchase a queen bee sometimes ask us – what makes a breeder queen unique, and why does a breeder queen often cost nearly ten times the amount of a regular mated queen?

A breeder queen is the cornerstone of a successful bee breeding program. While a breeder queen could certainly take part in regular honey production and beekeeping activities, such as pollination – and most likely would be a superstar in such endeavors – this is not the breeder queen’s purpose. A breeder queen is the carrier of the finest, specially selected genetics, almost always instrumentally inseminated – she is a prized specimen, too precious for ordinary beekeeping.

The vast majority of queen honeybees sold by most queen producers (including Wildflower Meadows) are commonly known as mated queen bees, sometimes also called laying queen bees.  These queen honeybees have been naturally open mated.  While these mated queens are generally of high quality themselves, they are not instrumentally inseminated, and therefore always contain a percentage of unknown genetics.

Unknown genetics may present risks within a breeding program.  An open mated queen will mate with approximately 15 drone honeybees, all of which may potentially be from unknown origins.  If a regular open mated queen is used for breeding, she is guaranteed to pass along hybrid and unknown genetics to her daughter queens, creating variability in her offspring.  With up to 15 unknown drones (fathers) in her genetic profile, there is no guarantee of uniformity and optimum genetics in her offspring.  The open mated queen’s daughters will almost certainly be hybrids and may be inconsistent in performance and quality, which is not ideal for breeding.

A breeder queen has been specifically bred, selected, and inseminated for genetic excellence – which is why breeder queens are more valuable for breeding.  The advantage of a breeder queen versus an open-mated queen is that a breeder features pre-selected F1 maternal AND F1 paternal lines that are 100% known and carefully identified. There are no unknowns with instrumental insemination – everything has been optimized for quality and uniformity.

Optimal genetics are vital to the growth of strong colonies. A beekeeper who wants to breed should start with carefully selected, pure genetic lines that are of known origin on both the maternal and paternal sides. This is the advantage of instrumental insemination and is what makes the breeder queen so unique and prized among honeybee breeders.

Queen Cups vs. Queen Cells

Honeybees are natural comb builders and always seem to be working on some sort of construction or renovation within their hive.  When bees are working on frames of honeycomb, they construct two sizes of honeycomb cells: worker-sized (or regular) honeycomb, or drone-sized (larger) honeycomb. These two sizes accommodate the size difference between worker bees and drone bees.  Drone honeybees are larger than workers, and can’t really fit into a regular honeycomb cell.

Most of the honeycomb that bees build is regular size, which the bees utilize for raising worker bees.  This makes sense since the vast majority of bees in any beehive consist of regular worker honeybees.  A smaller percentage of honeycomb, however, is larger sized, which the hive uses to raise drone honeybees.  In a healthy beehive, there are always more worker bees than drone bees so it is understandable that there would be more worker-sized comb cells than drone-sized comb cells.

What about the queen though?

Amid all this comb construction, the bees will occasionally decide to build a placeholder for a future queen cell – this is a queen cup.  A queen cup looks like an upside-down teacup.  It is more or less the foundation of a queen cell, without actually being a queen cell.  It is as if the bees have done the math – about 90% of a hive consists of worker bees, about 10% consists of drones, and there is a tiny, minuscule less-than-1% percent consisting of the one and only queen.  As a percentage basis, queens are a negligible percent of the hive’s population.  Therefore, the amount of comb dedicated to raising queens needs to be equally negligible.  The queen cup is a tiny acknowledgment that once in a while a beehive needs to raise a new queen.

Most of the time queen cups are unused and can linger around for years at a time.  If a beekeeper discovers a queen cup in a colony it is no cause for concern, unlike finding a queen cell.  The queen cup is merely a placeholder, for potential use at a later date if the hive decides for whatever reason to raise a new queen.  Having the queen cups in place makes building future queen cells just a little bit easier for the bees.

However, when a beekeeper discovers an actual live queen cell inside a colony, it is almost always a cause for concern.  Honeybees do not build queen cells unless they have an immediate and specific reason – unlike queen cups which bees will build just for their own sake. If honeybees are constructing queen cells it is likely due to one of several reasons.  From the beekeeper’s perspective, none of these reasons are good.

A few of the most common reasons bees that bees construct queen cells include:

  1. The hive is preparing to swarm
  2. The colony is without a queen and is in the process of raising an emergency replacement.
  3. The colony has decided that the current queen is of poor quality and needs to be replaced.