Replacing a queen bee can be a tricky operation but forewarned is forearmed. To maximise success you need to think carefully about about your Target Colony and the State of your Queen. Read on…
There are many reasons for replacing a queen during the course of the year:
- You may want to replace a bad queen for various reasons;
- You may have a queenless colony;
- You may have a drone laying queen or
- Laying workers.
Each situation requires different handling so knowing the exact status of your target colony is essential.
The colony may be aggressive, they may have overmuch chalk brood or the queen may just be plain weak. Whatever the reason find her and take her out.
- Either come back in 7 days, remove queen cells and use the Introduction cage method;
- Or if you feel brave – use the Matchbox method or the Paper Bag method after about an hour;
- Alternatively – if the bees are unnaturally strong and/or aggressive you could introduce your new queen to a nuc then unite the nuc with the strong colony on day 7 after you have removed those queen cells.
Sometimes, although you may be sure a colony is queenless unless you killed the queen yourself or saw her die you can’t be certain unless you test them.
Before you test them – always check she’s not in the supers!
- Make absolutely sure there aren’t already queencells tucked away somewhere;
- Add in a frame of young larvae (<3 days old) from a different colony. Nurse bees will sometimes eat the eggs of other bees but will happily draw emergency cells from small larvae;
- Come back in a week;
- If there are no queen cells they either have a queen or they think they have a queen, there is a difference; they could have a drone laying queen or laying workers – see below;
- If there are queen cells – they are queenless;
- Remove the queen cells and the colony is now hopelessly queenless and should be ready to accept a new queen now using the method of your choice.
If there is a drone laying queen – the bees will not draw cells on a test frame.
A drone laying queen is either a young queen that was not mated properly or a queen that has become very old. Either way, the sperm she stored in her spermatheca when she mated has run out and she is firing blanks – she is laying unfertilised eggs (drones) in worker cells.
- In this case the brood nest will be ugly and distorted by the larger drone larvae outgrowing the worker cells they were laid in;
- Cells will have domed drone cappings throughout;
- Eggs may appear to be laid in a good healthy looking pattern especially if the queen is a young one.
Either way – you will have to find her and remove her then you should be able to introduce a new queen immediately.
If you can’t find her it is possible she has gone. It is also possible that they are superceding her. You could add a test frame (see above).
Laying workers occur where the bees have been queenless for some time. In the absence of brood and when a colony has become hoplessly queenless, the ovaries of young nurse bees can swing into action and one or more of them will start to lay eggs. None of the eggs laid by workers are fertilised and the result is dwarf drones – a last desperate bid to get the genes out there in the pool.
The condition can be recognised by an erratic laying pattern and there will be a scatter of eggs in each cell. If you are minding your bees you should be aware of the status of each of your colonies and alert to the possibility of laying workers in colonies that are vulnerable.
The condition can be reversed by the addition of a frame or more of young larvae and eggs – they probably won’t make emergency cells in this case.
Alternatively, drag the hive away 100m and shake out all the bees into the grass. Only flying bees will return. Laying workers are young bees that have never flown and will die out there in the cold. That’s the theory anyway. And it’s brutal, brutal brutal.
This is the worst condition to find in your bees – by the time they get laying workers they are usually very weak it is best to just unite them with a queen-right colony or a nuc.
The state of your queen
The queen you intend to introduce may be one of the following:
- Laying queen;
- Postal queen;
- Virgin queen.
They will all need slightly different considerations. In theory, the queen cage method is the safest and often recommended. However – read on…
A big fat laying queen, straight out of an Apidea, will be exuding calming queen substance and as such will have strength and fertility written all over her – just what a queenless hive is looking for. In fact sometimes, a very strong queen seems to be unable to turn off the stream of eggs and will continue to lay as you handle her.
Such queens should be the easiest to introduce – to a desperately queenless and receptive colony.
However – she will still smell wrong because she has been fed by other bees and the reception committee will notice – big time!
A queen that came in the post was a laying queen when she went into the cage but she is no longer a laying queen when she gets to you.
The smell of queen substance may be diminished and the bees may develop the opinion that she is in fact failing.
In addition she will smell wrong because she has been fed by other bees and as before – they’re going to notice.
After she is accepted, it will take a little time for her to get into the full of her lay and the bees may draw queen cells in the interim thinking that she is failing rather than getting going. Check she’s still there and laying properly then just knock them off.
A virgin can be the most challenging of all. There is no scent of queen substance to calm the reception committee but there will be more to it than that – perhaps they can smell her genes and her potential to supplant their own; they probably smell a cuckoo!
And of course she has been fed by other bees and will smell wrong for that reason as well.
Which Introduction method?
There are many ways to introduce a queen bee and the choice is all yours. But remember:
The main reason you can’t just walk a new queen into the hive is because she doesn’t smell right. The thing is to get the bees to feed her before they kill her.
To do that you can either:
- Cage the queen and stick her in the hive. That’s the Introduction Cage method;
- You can cage some bees, confuse them, then stick the queen in with them. They are too confused to kill her but they will feed her. That’s the matchbox method.
- If your target colony is very strong or aggressive or just plain scary – you can introduce the queen to nuc and unite the nuc with your target colony. It seldom fails – nucs are pussy cats.
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