Mated Queen Bees

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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 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.

A Queen’s Unique Scent

Those of us who live closely with others know that each individual person carries his or her own distinctive scent.  An attentive partner can often pick up their partner’s scent in their clothes, their bedding, or even in their living space.  If you are living closely with someone, you very quickly get to know that person’s unique scent.  It becomes a part of your world, and you grow comfortable with it.

The same is true for a colony of honeybees and their queen.  Most beekeepers are aware that all queens carry a special “queen pheromone” that distinguishes the scent of a queen bee from a worker bee.  It is obvious simply from watching basic honeybee behavior that the worker bees are quickly able to identify the queen bee, and it seems equally obvious that a pheromone is driving the behavior.  What is less well known, however, is that beyond this general queen pheromone, each individual queen has her own unique pheromone or scent, which is distinctly individual to her, and her alone.

When a swarm is presented with two queens at a distance, one of which is their own and the other an imposter, the swarm will always select its own queen and will attack the imposter.  It instantly recognizes the unique pheromone of its own queen even though both, obviously, smell like queens.  One smells like their queen and the other does not.

One might think that a queen’s unique pheromone signature might be driven by the fragrance of the blossoms that the colony is foraging in.  While this is somewhat true, it is only part of the picture.  For example, if a colony has been foraging on sage blossoms, the colony and the queen might begin to take on the aroma of sage.  This effect, however, is only an enhancement to the underlying scent, which remains unique and inherent in each individual queen.  Scientists have proven this by removing a colony’s queen, exposing her to a strong but different scent, and then reintroducing her to her colony.  The bees still recognized their queen’s underlying pheromone, even though it appeared to have been overwhelmed with a different scent.

What does this mean for a beekeeper?  A conscientious beekeeper must be aware that any new queen is always going to smell differently than a previous queen, and the bees will know this immediately.  Don’t be fooled, they are going to recognize this each and every time.  This is why we beekeepers use queen cages and sugar candy to slow a queen’s introduction, to allow time for the colony to grow accustomed to their new queen’s unique pheromone signature.  It is also why it is often good advice to not disturb a colony shortly after a queen introduction.  When a new queen is becoming established in a colony, the hive requires a certain amount of time to become intimate with that queen’s unique pheromone, and to claim that queen and her pheromone as their own.  Any disturbance that disrupts the transmission of this new pheromone can potentially create confusion inside the colony, possibly resulting in the colony mistakenly identifying the new queen as an imposter, and thus attacking her.

How To Bank Queens

When you have more queens on hand than you know what to do with, then it’s probably time to think about banking them.  Banking queens is a way to keep queens healthy over the long-term before they are placed inside their actual colonies.  Although at Wildflower Meadows we typically sell our queens quickly after pulling them, we still nevertheless need to maintain queen banks throughout the season.  As in any queen rearing operation, there are always queen bees coming and going.  When a Wildflower Meadows’ queen is standing by for shipment, she sometimes needs a comfortable ‘bed and breakfast’ to temporarily be housed safely and professionally.  Afterall, she is royalty!

Whether you are banking a hundred or more queens at a time, or just one or two, the principals of successful queen banking are always the same.  The key to your success, and by far the most important component of your banking system, is that you maintain a strong, healthy banking colony that is both well-fed and queenless throughout the period of banking.

Traditional beekeeping advice often says that you can bank queens in a colony that has its own queen as long as you keep the queen bank over a queen excluder.  However, at Wildflower Meadows, we do not subscribe to this view.  This approach often results in worker bees attacking the banked queens, which can unnecessarily cause stress or losses to the queens in the bank.  We have found that it is best that the banking colony has no queen of its own, as this makes it very receptive towards caring for and properly attending to the banked queens.

Your banking colony should always be well fed.  At Wildflower Meadows we never stop feeding our banking colonies.  The syrup flows from March through September and it never stops.  This ensures that the attending bees inside of the banks always have more than enough resources to take excellent care of the queens.  If you are banking queens for more than a week or two, you also will need to maintain your queen bank by removing any natural queen cells inside the bank, and by continually adding brood.  You always want a good supply of young nurse bees on hand in your bank, because these are the bees that focus on taking care of your precious queens.  When you are banking queens, nurse bees are your friends.  If you don’t keep adding brood, you will quickly run out of nurse bees, and your queens will suffer the consequences.

Once your banking colony is well fed, strong and queenless, it is ready to receive the banked queens.  You will want to have some system for storing the queens inside the colony.  The first thing is to make sure that the banked bees have no access to releasing the queens!  If you are banking just a few queens, the easiest approach is to place a piece of heavy-duty tape around the bottom of the cage, blocking any access to the candy or cork.

There are different methods for placing the queens inside of the banking colony.  At Wildflower Meadows, we use what is known as a “banking frame,” which is a specialized beekeeping frame that is designed to hold 132 queens at a time.  This frame takes up the space of two normal Langstroth frames inside a deep hive body.

You don’t necessarily need a banking frame, however, to successfully bank queens.  If you are banking for a relatively short amount of time and don’t mind cleaning up a little extra burr comb, you can simply remove two frames from your banking colony, and creatively place your queens inside the gap you’ve created, making sure to leave enough space for the bees to attend to the queens.   If you have wooden cages, you could assemble “groups” of ten queens or so with a rubber band, and stack them inside the gap.  Always keep in mind that your nurse bees need to have easy access to the queens.  If possible, you should also place the queens towards the center of the colony, well below the lid, as excessive heat may cause damage.

Best practices call for banking queens without any attendants inside the cages.  Theoretically, this is to keep the bees in the bank focused on the queens directly rather than on the attendants in the cages, which may have different pheromones and repel or fight with the banking colony.  In our experience, however, this is rarely the case.  Usually, the attendants inside of the cages combine forces in a friendly manner with the attendants in the bank and work together harmoniously to take care of the queens.  Nevertheless, to be safe, especially when banking over the long term, it is always better to bank queens without attendants inside the individual cages.

The Pros And Cons Of Early Season Queen Bees

One of the constants in the world of beekeeping is that most beekeepers prefer to order and receive queen bees as early in the season as possible.  Having access to early season queens means that a beekeeper can divide colonies at the front end of the season, well before the spring honey flow begins in earnest, and well before the risk of swarming gets out of hand.  It also means that winter losses can be recovered quickly; with these new colonies getting an early start to the season with young, vigorous queens.  These young colonies typically have an excellent chance to build up rapidly in advance of the main honey flows.  Young queens are also less likely to swarm, which is another benefit of having an early-season queen prior to the swarming season.

All things being equal, a young queen is better than an old queen, so having young queens in hand as the beekeeping season begins is often an ideal way to get the season off to a good start.

However, with Mother Nature, not all things are equal.

In our current era of adverse climate conditions and high colony losses, counting on early season queens is not always a successful strategy.  First and foremost, because of the relentless trend towards higher annual bee losses, the demand for queen bees in general – and early season queens in particular – far outpaces the supply.  In short, it can be difficult to obtain early season queens, at any price.  Nearly all beekeepers, from the small backyard hobbyist, to the small-scale part-timer, to full commercial operations, and the queen breeders themselves, face high losses that need to be replaced each and every year.  These losses come from various sources, such as pesticides, varroa mites, viruses, nutrition, extreme weather, and increasingly, fire.  Each loss that needs to be replaced requires a new queen bee.  And, unfortunately, most queen breeders cannot produce enough queen bees during the earliest portion of the season to meet this tremendous demand.  Therefore, availability is usually extremely limited, or even non-existent, during the earliest portion of the season.

The availability, and quality, of early season queens is also more greatly affected by weather conditions, unlike queens that are produced later in the year.  Here in Southern California, while our spring and early summer weather is known for generally being sunny and pleasant, the weather in March and April can often be unpredictable, and sometimes downright stormy.  This means that the earliest queens may not always experience the most ideal mating conditions.  Even though early season drones are usually more than plentiful, due to weather, these drones may not be able to fly (or to fly in sufficient numbers) to ensure successful queen mating.  This means that sometimes, in spite of a queen breeder’s best intentions, an early season queen may not have mated as well as a later season queen, who will have experienced ideal weather for her mating flights.

Given these limitations, in recent years, many beekeepers have switched to a strategy of securing queens later in the season, when a large number of high-quality queens are readily available.  Instead of utilizing the early spring for dividing colonies, these beekeepers instead divide colonies later in the season, utilizing the last part of the summer honey flow to divide colonies and make up any losses.

There are several advantages to this strategy.  First, high-quality well-mated queens are usually readily available later in the season, and it is much easier to reliably obtain them.  Second, by not dividing colonies before the first honey flow, a beekeeper can head into the earliest portion of the honey making season with incredibly strong and powerful bee colonies.  A strong colony will nearly always produce more honey than an average colony.

And, finally, when colonies are divided later in the season, these newly created colonies head into the critical autumn season with relatively young and vigorous queens.  These young queens are often very enthusiastic about laying eggs upon their arrival, often resulting in a robust autumn build-up.  This typically ensures that the late summer divides have a near ideal bee population heading into winter, bettering their chances for winter survival.

From A Bee’s Perspective

We human beings love to anthropomorphize our beloved honeybees.  A Google image search for “speedy” bee, “busy” bee, “happy” bee, and even “queen” bee – more often than not comes up with a human-like cartoon caricature rather than an actual insect.

While we like to think of honeybees as human-like, it can be rather difficult to wrap our heads around how very different honeybees actually are from us human beings.  We appear to be alike in the way that we cohabitate our planet – mostly harmoniously and working well together in nature.  However, our actual manner of living is in fact vastly different.  Bees live in an insect realm of dark, vertical, and mysterious spaces.  So, let’s be honest, we are not even remotely close to being the same species!  Therefore, the notion that we have a similar life experience, along with a similar perspective of the world, is a vastly huge stretch.

It is easy to forget these differences, though.  Here at Wildflower Meadows, we do it all the time, especially when it comes time to ship our queen bees.  We lovingly prepare our weekly shipments, and wish our bees well as they travel into the very human world of trucks, highways and airports.  Then, off they go, to their remote destinations to meet their new human caretakers and bee colonies.  It’s as if we are sending a friend or family member off for a business trip or vacation:

  • Food? Check.
  • Water? Check.
  • Travel companions? Check.
  • Destination notified? Check.
  • Flight schedule? Check.
  • Check-In Time?  Check.
  • Okay, let’s go before we miss our flight!

Then, after all the preparations, Wildflower Meadows’ queens embark on a completely human-like journey.

 

But wait, the passengers are not human.  They are insects!

This distinction becomes particularly obvious if a queen shipment incurs a travel delay.  Just like when we humans travel across the country, unexpected delays and hold-ups do happen, whether we like it or not.  UPS Next Day Air shipments of queen bees, while almost always reliable, can, on the rare occasion be delayed.  At times, shipments can be disrupted by delayed flights or missed connections, or simply by the weather.  Sometimes, the volume is especially heavy in the overall UPS network, thus slowing down the system’s ability to process rapidly-moving night time loads.  When this happens, a queen shipment can, unfortunately, be delayed – typically by a single day.  More often than not, the delayed shipment gets temporarily parked for 24-hours, usually in one of two UPS regional processing centers:  Ontario, CA for the West Coast, and Louisville, KY for the remainder of the United States.

If we think of our traveling bees as human beings, this hold-up can be highly disturbing.  Who among us would want to be trapped in a pitch-black box inside a mechanized industrial processing center for an entire day, with no way to leave and no way to know what is going on?  If this happened to a friend or a relative, we would be terrified for their well-being and almost certainly would lose sleep worrying about their plight.

From a bees’ perspective, however, a situation like this is really no big deal.  First, as insects, honeybees are used to the dark, and actually prefer it.  Second, they are well-contained at room temperature with other attending bees in their shipping containers for care and company.  Confined spaces actually make insects feel more comfortable and at home, not less so.  The shipping packages have plenty of ventilation; and the bees themselves have more than enough food.  And, they were also watered right before shipment.  In short, the queens and their attendant bees are just fine!  This explains why in all of our years of shipping queen bees, except in the rarest of cases, neither we nor our customers have experienced losses with bees that are delayed overnight, or for an entire day in a UPS Customer Center.  Yes, it is inconvenient, annoying, and scary for us and our customers; but it’s not a problem for the bees themselves.

In fact, in exceptionally rare cases, we have seen instances where queen shipments were accidentally misrouted or redirected for days at a time, and still the queen and her attendant bees were no worse for the wear.  Our famous queen, “Wheels,” comes to mind.

Of course, we all worry.  But from a bee’s perspective, what’s the big deal?

Raising Queens vs. Breeding Queens

Being a provider of queen honeybees carries with it several responsibilities.  First, and always foremost, is to raise quality queens.  Anyone who is raising queens has an obligation to focus on quality in all facets of the queen raising process.  This means paying attention to details and not cutting corners.  From selecting a breeder queen, to grafting larvae, to raising queen cells, to optimizing mating conditions, and all the way to caging and shipping queens, any failure to maintain a high standard of quality can, and likely will, result in the raising of sub-standard queens.

Raising queens, however, is only half of the formula for developing a quality queen.  What is equally important is the breeding of queens.  The queen producer wants queens, but the queen breeder wants more.  The queen breeder wants an improvement in the queen stock.  Therefore, breeding cannot be overlooked as a key component of the queen rearing process.  Most every queen producer, large or small, will start with a good breeder queen.  But this is a long way from selecting heritable properties in the bees from generation to generation.

Breeding queens involves reproducing genetic lines of bees from generation to generation by selecting for specific traits that the beekeeper desires.  It requires both promoting positive traits and removing undesirable traits.  It also requires generational focus on combining the very best of genetic material.  While some queen producers may overlook this part of the formula, fortunately, many conscientious queen producers throughout the years – and continuing through today – have understood the entire breadth and responsibility of raising queens.  These individuals are much more than producers of queens; they are true breeders of quality honeybees.