HELP! I NEED A QUEEN!

(ACTUALLY, YOU PROBABLY DON’T)

Did you open your colony, expecting to find brood and a queen, only to see no sign of her highness, and no brood in sight?   It’s time to panic!  Get on the phone, get out your wallet, and get a queen back in that colony immediately!!  Actually, you are probably just fine.   And if you aren’t fine, you probably won’t solve your problem by purchasing a queen[1].  Jumping to purchase a queen at the first sight of a broodless hive is a normal reaction for new beekeepers, but it isn’t usually the correct solution for that colony or the most sustainable way to run your apiary.  Before you reach for the phone to order a new queen, consider the following:

  1.  Why is my colony queenless?
  2.  How long has my colony been queenless?
  3.  Am I really sure that the colony is actually queenless?
  4.  What do I need to do to make the colony queen right and functioning (i.e. do I need to purchase a queen)?

TL;DR – If you are missing a queen, it is likely fine and they either are requeening after a swarm or a supercedure, and you don’t want to introduce a queen.  If you aren’t sure, you can add a frame of brood to give the queen room to lay, or for them to raise up a new queen.  If it really went south, and you are hopelessly queenless, then you don’t need a queen, you need to combine those bees with a functioning colony.  In all of the cases described, the colony will likely not accept a new queen.  Either you have to be more patient or combine the hives together, and save your money for buying a new queen to make a split when you are ready.  

1)   Why is my colony queenless?

Supercedure

Early summer/ late spring is a big time for supercedure. Supercedure is the process where the bees replace queens by killing the old queen, and raising a new one from a cell.    Over wintered colonies often supercede the old queen after swarm season if they didn’t swarm (another reason for requeening in the fall), and about a third of purchased packages supercede at this time as well.  Older colonies supercede queens as a normal part of long term colony health.  Packages supercede because they aren’t normal. 

Why packages supercede their queen (one theory).

Bees don’t do things randomly – they have cues that guide their behavior.  One of their main cues is different ages of bees and brood in the hive, which the bees detect by pheromones. The workers are constantly assessing the queen this way – if a queen was good andlaying consistently, then you would have all ages of bees in the hive, in the right proportions.  If she was laying inconsistently, then you would have bees of random ages, and a big break in brood laying.  In nature, if the bees come across this scenario, they would know she was off, and would replace her.   Think about the scenario in a package – bees from all different colonies and ages just thrown together, and a queen who just starts laying at a really key time in the season.  She doesn’t look that great to her colony, but there is no way to sneak in there and remind the workers to give her a chance, because they were in a package.   She starts laying, and they let her go enough to raise some brood and then replace her.  Queens also get replaced if they are sick or are damaged from transport – if your package was heated at all, or she was sick, then the bees may also supercede around the same time.  It is really common for packages and overwintered colonies with old queens to supercede in late spring/ early summer.

Swarming

In Michigan, by June we are out of reproductive swarm season, where overwintered colonies build up to split themselves, but we are just getting into crowded swarming season – where any colony swarms because their beekeeper has not provided them with enough space. By space, I mean drawn comb above the brood nest.  The bees start to fill in the brood nest with nectar, the queen has nowhere to lay, and the colony swarms.

Something else/ you killed her

Even if you squish a queen (it happens to the best of us), the bees can usually requeen just fine if they have brood of the right age.  

 

Regardless of how the old queen died, the bees will work on a replacement if they have young enough larvae.  Usually the bees can raise a new queen just fine, and a virgin will hatch out of the cell.  Where problems generally arise is when the virgin doesn’t make it back from her mating flight (she gets hit by a car, eaten by a dragonfly, blown off course), and the bees don’t have any more young larvae to make a new queen.  In that case the colony is ‘hopelessly queenless’.   To determine if we are just queenless or hopelessly queenless, we need to look at the timing. 

 

2)   How long has my colony been queenless?

Most of the time when a colony goes queenless, it is able to replace the queen just fine. It often just takes longer than we expect, so we tend to panic rather than wait patiently – almost always the colony is fine, and it is the beekeeper’s expectations that are the problem.  Even worse, you can mess with the process when you go digging in there all the time.  Thankfully, bees are pretty consistent, so we can use basic math to tell us when we should start to freak out[2] about not having a queen in the hive.

First, look for brood.  Remember, that workers hatch out on day 21, drone brood on day 24[3]. If you only have capped worker brood, then you had a queen 12-21 days ago.  You may even be able to tell how old the capped brood is by the color and amount, or see larvae, giving you even more information. 

Day 1 – Queen death – no more laying in the colony.

The bees will raise up a new queen cell, using a young larvae. If the colony is swarming or superceding, they will have started the queen cell before the queen dies.  In an emergency (e.g. you squished her), they will start the next day.

Day 8 - 14 – the queen emerges from her cell

It takes 16 days for a queen to go from laid to emergence.  Generally they start with a young larvae, so we can expect a new virgin about 2 weeks after the queen is gone.  In a swarm, where they don’t leave until she is capped (day 8 after the egg is laid), she will hatch out in just over a week.

One week after emergence (Day 15 – 20)– The new virgin gets ready for her mating flights.  She needs about a week to just be a virgin, eat up, harden her wings before she goes out to mate.

We are already 2 -3 weeks out, and the queen may still need 2 weeks to get mated properly.  Usually it is quicker than that, but if you have a lot of bad weather (like most Michigan springs), it can be into the second week. 

 

This process happen quickly (replacement after a swarm in great weather), or it can take weeks and weeks.  This handy figure from Beespoke.info does a nice job of showing just how long it can be.  It is starting to make sense why your mentors and teachers keep harping on you to take good notes, isn’t it!

 

http://beespoke.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/QueenRearingTimeline.png

 

Now, she is going to return, the bees will ready cells, and she can start laying.   Remember she will only start with a small patch of eggs.  If you can’t normally see eggs, or you don’t patiently and carefully look in the exact part of the nest where she starts, you may miss them if you look at this stage. 

In the above scenario, we can easily be without a visible sign of a queen for weeks, and do you know what? Everything worked out just fine.  Let’s say that you called me for a queen, and put in a new queen during this process.  The bees would eat out the little candy plug, and then either kill her, or the virgin would kill her.   She wouldn’t even stand a chance, and you would have wasted a perfectly good, raised-with-love queen (and your time and money to get her).  To avoid that scenario, we have to know if we really are queenless, or if they are just in the process.

3)   Am I really sure that the colony is actually queenless?

Just because you don’t see brood doesn’t mean your colony is queenless. They may be in the process, as described above, or the queen may not have any place to lay. 

Nectar bound

The queen won’t lay eggs anywhere.  She needs cleaned, polished, empty cells in the broodnest (the spherical area in the lower part of the colony where all the brood is laid).  One of the things that drives a colony to swarm is when there is no space in the hive to put incoming nectar, and the bees put it in the brood nest.  If this happens, not only will you lose the queen, but the new queen will return, and won’t have anywhere to lay. You could have a great queen running around in there, but not see any brood.  If you think you are queenless, but you aren’t, the colony is just nectar bound.   If this happens, you have to give them enough room to move the nectar out of the brood nest AND accommodate all the incoming nectar.  If you have a huge colony that swarmed, this may be 3 boxes of drawn comb.   That seems like a lot, and it is! It is a really clear example of just how far you were behind on supering your over wintered colony!  Get boxes on there as soon as you can, and mark your calendar to get your act together and get supers on your big overwintered colonies earlier next year.  If you don’t have drawn comb, it is much harder, because they can’t just move nectar onto foundation.  You can use a process called ‘checkerboarding’ (https://honeybeesuite.com/how-to-checkerboard-a-hive/), but it will still take time for them to rearrange everything.  

If you are impatient, your colony is nectar bound, and you want to know if you have a queen, but she just doesn’t have room, then add in a frame of emerging brood from another colony.  As the brood emerges, the queen will have clean cells where she can start laying, and you can go back and peek to see if you have larvae in there in a week. 

Not nectar bound, but no sign of brood

What if you see no sign of brood in your colony, and the queen has plenty of cells in the brood nest where she could lay? You may be somewhere in the queen replacement schedule outlined above.  If you don’t want to wait a few weeks to see if it works out, you can do a test to determine if they are queenless. Give them a frame of eggs and young larvae from another healthy hive.  If your colony is really queenless, then they will start to draw out queen cells.  If they are in the process of doing it themselves, they won’t draw cells, but will appreciate the bump of young bees. 

 

Laying worker

The final situation is that the queen has been gone for long enough that there is no more brood, and the workers have started to lay eggs themselves.  Because the workers have never mated, the eggs are unfertilized, and can only develop into drones.  You can recognize a laying worker colony by multiple eggs in the cell (the workers are enthusiastic, but not talented at laying), and later, but scattered drone brood in cells where workers would normally develop. https://beeinformed.org/2011/05/20/laying-worker-2/

A laying worker colony is genetically dead – they can’t reproduce (swarming, raising new queens) to carry on their genetics as an organism.  If you add a queen to this scenario, the bees will not accept her – they are too far gone.  Plus, there is no mechanism for them to see a queen in a laying worker colony and think that she is okay.  It isn’t like a queen would just show up in a tree cavity in a little cage out in nature.   Just like the package supercedure scenario, they would take one look around, and think she is doing a horrible job. 

4)     What do I need to do to make the colony queen right and functioning (do I need to purchase a queen)?

Be patient.  Usually the best course of action is to wait.  Use the calendars above, and figure out when the very last day you could expect it to right itself would be.  Write that date down, and put a note on your hive not to open it until that time.  Go have a beer, build frames, watch them coming and going from the entrance, but leave them alone.  If you go digging in there too early, you may not get any new information, and you may disrupt a queen cell, an agitated virgin, or a runny new queen.  Let them do their thing.   If your colony is hopelessly queenless (no queen and no brood), the worst has already happened.  It can’t get hopelessly queenless-er.  If you catch it now, or if you catch it 2 weeks from now (even if it is a laying worker), the actions are still the same (see below).  There is no ‘catching it just in time.’  Either it is fine, and you will come back and there will be a queen, or it is not fine, and you will deal with it. There is no ‘beemergency’ situation where you need to take action today. 

Pay attention to what you see in the brood nest.  “I didn’t see any eggs” is not that informative.  When you look in the brood nest, where you expect to see brood do you see 1) nectar, 2) nothing, or 3) multiple eggs with spotty drone brood.

If you see nectar, then make sure they have room to pull it out.  If you see nothing, then you can put a frame of brood in from a healthy colony to test for queen cells.   If you see signs of laying workers, which is literally the worst case scenario, you can follow the instructions below.

Usually, if you wait, the bees just requeen and are fine.  If they aren’t fine, then you can add a frame of eggs, and they can try again, and then are fine.  If they really aren’t fine (laying worker), or you don’t want to take the time for them to raise another queen, then combine them with another hive. If it is small, just add the box to another hive, or shake the bees off the frame in front of another hive.  If it is big, you can combine it by placing it over a functioning colony, with a single sheet of newspaper in between the boxes. Just make sure that the bees up top have an entrance to get in and out.  https://honeybeesuite.com/how-to-combine-colonies-with-newspaper/

IF YOUR COLONY IS HOPELESSLY QUEENLESS, YOU DON’T HAVE A COLONY – YOU HAVE A BOX OF BEES. 

Remember, that a colony is a super organism.  It needs to have a queen, brood of all the right ages, and all the right age worker bees (nurses, house bees, foragers, etc). Just because you have a hive with bees in it doesn’t mean that you have a colony or that it needs to be saved as its own independent organism.  As a sustainable beekeeper, you will always be combining and splitting, so that all your colonies are fully functioning.  You’ll read in some places that you can bring it back by successively adding frames of brood, and then adding a queen.  That is true, but what you have done is combined it with another colony (you added brood, nurse bees, and a queen with entirely different genetics), you just did it in a way that was slow and highly laborious).  If you really want to have the extra colony, combine it now, and make a proper split later when it is all healthy and happy.  Don’t try to resurrect a zombie.

 

Here is another handy resource for troubleshooting a colony with queen cells.

http://www.wbka.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/There-Are-Queen-Cells-In-My-Hive-WBKA-WAG.pdf

 

[1] I realize as I write this, that my business is to sell queens. It may look like a terrible business decision to talk all my customers out of the product that I sell, but I think of it differently.  I don’t want to send my precious, limited, raised with love and care, wonderful queens to their death in a colony that won’t accept them.  I’d rather that they go to a colony where they can shine and really get the job done.  Plus, better educated beekeepers have more fun, and stay in beekeeping longer.  Sustainable apiaries are important for bee health, and for long-term customer relationships!  

[2] Actually, there is never really a time when you will need to freak out when you are queenless. Keep reading, and you’ll see that it always works out fine. 

[3] I often get calls from people with only drone brood, who are panicking because they think they have a drone laying queen.  More than once, it has been because they happened to check the hive during period when the workers have all hatched, but the drones are still pupating.