Long Live the New Queen

Photo Credit: SJ Bennett

Spring is typical requeening season. Sometimes you do it yourself; other times, the bees swarm or supersede. A young queen is the result.  When a queen is failing, you’re told: Kill the old queen and replace her.  Pretty straight forward, eh?

For an experienced beekeeper, requeening is as easy as pinch and insert. But if beekeeping is new to you, it might take a while to get comfortable. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll write a little of what I know about requeening. Tomorrow, we’ll start with recognizing the signs that your hive is in trouble.  After identifying queen issues, we’ll describe finding and murdering the old queen, then I’ll post about introducing a new queen. Finally, we’ll see what you should do during the reboot stage.

Today, before we dig into the business of requeening, let’s consider the natural state of affairs. Queens may sometimes (rarely) live four or five years. In a hollow tree, with just a small cavity, broodnests might be small so the queen doesn’t lay 2,500 eggs a day non-stop for four months. Egg-laying isn’t so intense. With less stress and activity, the queen can live longer.

In the past, beekeepers used smallish hives permanently perched near a garden. Today, we assure plenty of open brood space, encouraging the queen to lay. Some haul hives from flow to flow and latitude to latitude, keeping queens active and exhausting energy. Today’s environment exposes bees to synthetic chemicals. Intercontinental migration and mites spread viruses. It’s a different world for bees. Queens are living shorter lives.

In the wild, a colony swarms almost every year. That’s the way their superorganism, the colony, reproduces. It’s how new queens naturally enter the cycle. The secondary natural requeening system, supersedure, occurs when bees figure out that their old queen is failing. They build queen cells. Virgin queens emerge, execute the old queen and rival virgins, then mate and begin their egg-laying career. In swarming or supersedure, queen cells grow from well-fed young larvae. Resulting queens are very good.  Occasionally in a feral hive, the queen dies suddenly (a wasp enters the nest and catches her, or a storm knocks the treehouse over and the queen is squashed). In such events, replacement queens are hastily generated and the result is usually inferior.  Queen breeders know the difference. When they raise queens for you, they mimic swarming and supersedure conditions.

Queen cells, produced from swarm-strength cell-builder hives.

As a beekeeper, you work with hives that have a variety of queen conditions. You’ll try to prevent swarming and your queens will lay more eggs than they would if the colony were residing inside a tree. You will occasionally find a failing queen weakening your hive and you’ll need to consider a course of action. Next time, we’ll look at ways to assess the fitness of your colony’s queen.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Bee Biology, Beekeeping, Queens, Swarms and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Long Live the New Queen

  1. Pingback: Long Live the New Queen | How To Raise Bees

  2. Pingback: Long Live the New Queen | Raising Honey Bees

  3. I am not sure there is much consensus about this notion of emergency queens inferiority. Michael Bush takes up the subject here—http://www.bushfarms.com/beesemergencyqueens.htm—and quotes CC Miller, Moses Quinby, and Jay Smith on the quality
    of emergency queens.


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hi Susan, as always – ask two beekeepers and get three answers.
      My note in the blog was based on two things – my own observations and literature from research scientists. I’ve generally noticed that emergency queens are smaller and bees usually replace them with supersedure cells before long, indicating they are not optimal. Emergency queen cells are usually puny compared to other queen cells. Puny and sub-optimal are not necessarily due to larvae age, but that’s the likely problem. Many researchers have noted that emergency cells may be raised from older larvae. Dissection shows enormous differences in the numbers of ovarian tubes between larvae begun twelve hours later than optimal. Of course, such queens generally emerge first and destroy their better sisters’ cells.
      As just one example of a scientist who had something to say on this, when Colin Butler was chosen to write the relevant piece for Dadant’s Hive and Honey Bee, the head of the entomology department for Rothamsted Experimental Station wrote: “The larvae selected for rearing as emergency queens are usually less than two days old, but can be as much as three days old.” He then describes how older larvae result in “very imperfect individuals with at least some worker characteristics”. It’s interesting that we go from great queen to ‘very imperfect’ with just that 24-hour difference. In emergency situations, the bees select a large number of worker larvae for queen treatment. Chances are that some will be a bit older and those will likely emerge first. Those are the queens we don’t want in our hives.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Another observation on this from my experience. We do a lot of structural cutouts in Los Angeles, and often the site is under the floor of a building, behind a wall, attached to a tree limb, or hanging from the eaves. In these cases, the latitude for expansion is not being constrained by ” the colony were residing inside a tree” In fact, due to the heavy management if the urban tree cover, I have taken only 2 tree cavity hives, and one was from a tree being sectioned for removal. Many feral colonies grow to very large size and seem to swarm on a trigger related to simple reproductive impulse rather than crowding.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. On continuing the discussion of emergency queen quality, I remember the importance of good feeding to the generation of a good queen. I mailed the posts we exchanged to Michael Bush and he had this to say—–“If one believes it matters, the solution would seem to be “notch” the
    right age larvae (Mel Disselkoen’s OTS method) and destroy any cells
    capped on day 3 or, if you really want to get picky, early on day 4. I
    don’t bother and don’t have any issues. Poor queens can be raised by
    any method if you don’t make sure they are well fed and well bred.

    Some researchers have said there is no difference in the food given to a
    larvae until 36 hours. That is a day and a half. The larvae hatch on
    day 3 1/2. So that would be a larvae that is 5 days old and 3 days from
    being capped. So even a cell that is capped on day 3 might be fine. In
    order for the larvae to be too old it would have to be capped on day 2
    from when they became queenless. I don’t know of anyone who has ever
    observed this.

    As with any research, tell me the outcome you want and I can set up an
    experiment that will give it to you… in this case do the emergency
    queens at a time when there are not enough resources or in a hive
    without enough bees or resources and I can get you a poor emergency
    queen… or if you want good queens, I can do it at prime swarm season
    when there are plenty of drones, plenty of resources to feed the queens
    and in a strong hive that can feed them well and get some very good

    Comparing “grafted” to “emergency” isn’t really a comparison unless you
    are quite precise about the circumstances that the queen was raised
    under and have done everything possible to equalize those circumstances.”

    “unless a distinction can be made rigorous and precise it isn’t really a
    distinction.”–Jacques Derrida (1991) Afterword: Toward An Ethic of
    Discussion, published in the English translation of Limited Inc.,
    pp.123-4, 126



  6. Pingback: Long Live the (New) Queen | Bad Beekeeping Blog

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