Good Queen; Bad Queen

Quite a few commercial beekeepers replace queens every second year. It’s a scheduled event, sort of like a birthday. Half the hives will get a new queen in 2017, the other half in 2018, then back to the first group again.  But hobby beekeepers may be able to watch their bees more closely, allowing a good queen to continue past her second year, or replacing a fizzled one after a few underproductive months. How can you judge queen quality and when do you sharpen the axe?

Good queen or bad queen?

First, be aware that you can seldom recognize a good queen from a bad one on sight. If I were to place one of each into a small vial and ask you to play Solomon, you’d have about a 50-50 chance of picking the best. There is an exception (to every rule), as in the example in the picture to your right. You should be able to figure out on your own whether this dead queen will be an effective egg layer for your colony.

Don’t bother to find the queen with the idea of assessing her worth. I’d once come along a slowly plodding 5-legged queen in a hive with 12 frames of brood and a booming population. She looked old. She was somehow wounded. But there was this great hive. I let her live. However, think about this: Some beekeepers claim that one in twenty summertime hives actually has two queens, usually mother and daughter, working side-by-side. Maybe that was the situation in the nice hive with the gimpy queen. I don’t know because I didn’t look for a second queen. Most beekeepers don’t. We’re so certain a hive has just one queen (it’s in all the fables and children’s books) that we never look for queen number two. This can be a problem when requeening and inserting an expensive new queen mother.

If the condition of a queen isn’t a reliable indicator of her quality, what is? Well, it’s her brood pattern. If the hive has a normal population and isn’t honey-bound, you will see nice full frames of brood in late spring. The combs should have workers developing in worker cells, not drones. There should be just one egg per cell and brood should be fairly continuous with similarly-aged brood close together. Here’s an example of a very nice frame of brood:

On the other hand, if you see a frame with a highly irregular brood pattern, like this one below, the queen is likely failing. If you could look down into the cells, you’d see eggs next to sealed next to pearl – a real mish-mash of thoughtless irregularity. The queen isn’t able to produce a consistent flow of fertile eggs.

I’d replace a queen that was this inefficient. As queens age, they may deplete their spermatheca, reducing the chances that the egg dropped has been fertilized. I’ve not seen this documented, so I could be wrong, but my hunch is that the queen physically opens the sperm bank door and assumes the egg has been properly inseminated. She does what she thinks is a successful fertilization because she is getting a signal to her brain indicating she’s done everything correctly, so she deposits the egg into a worker cell. Poor thing. Normally, a queen only places unfertilized eggs (which will always become a drone) into large, drone-sized cells. She knows what she’s doing. Fertile eggs into worker cells; unfertilized into drone cells. So, she assumes the door to the spermatheca opened, the egg is inseminated, and it belongs in a worker cell. But as the queen ages, fertilization is less certain. She unintentionally lays an infertile egg in a worker cell.  When this happens, we consider the queen to be a drone layer and we need to replace her ASAP.  Here’s what the resulting ‘bullet brood’ may look like in this situation:

Finally, one other condition to be aware of is the case of laying workers. Worker honey bees do not mate so they cannot fertilized eggs. Unfertilized eggs become drones. Hives with laying workers will end up with just drone brood and worker population will nosedive. Laying workers are likely more common than we suspect. Most hives probably have some workers laying a few eggs at any time. Remove the queen and the queen’s associated odours and the egg-laying instinct of laying workers is no longer suppressed. In a queenless hive, one-third of the workers will eventually activate their ovaries and lay eggs. The longer a hive is queenless, the greater the likelihood that laying workers will lay. Usually such a situation can not be fixed and the beekeeper eliminates the entire hive by shaking all the bees out of the equipment and letting the displaced bees enter other hives. This is a complicated issue and you’ll have to research it on your own. For some background on laying workers, you might check my blog post on how they develop by going to this page. In the meantime, look at the photos below to recognize the signs of laying workers and do not try to requeen such a hive with a freshly purchased caged queen. The laying worker hive will kill the gift you’ve given them.

Photo by Michael Palmer/Beesource.com

In the remarkable photo above (credited to Michael Palmer via Beesource.com), you see the clear evidence of laying workers. Worker bees can’t count as well as queen bees. They don’t stop at ‘one’ – some of these cells have ten eggs. Most will be removed by other workers, but in the top row, you can see at least two hatched eggs (larvae) in the cell near the middle. None of the eggs in this picture are fertilized. If they develop, they will become drones.  Another clue that workers have been at work laying on the comb above is in the third row from the top, second cell from the left. You can see the egg stuck to the cell wall instead of the cell bottom. That’s because workers have shorter abdomens than queens and can’t always reach the cell bottom to drop their eggs.  Again, when you see this, don’t waste your time and money trying to requeen. Cut your losses and eliminate the hive.

Most hives will not have drone-laying queens or laying workers.  It will be less clear to you that the queen is failing. Your clues will come from the brood – its quantity and pattern. Don’t be hasty making your decision. A hive weakened by mites, skunks, weather, foulbrood, or other maladies may have a fine queen but the brood quantity (and perhaps its pattern) may be sub-optimal. Not every hive will have the perfect pattern that you see here, to the left. There is a spectrum of brood quality and it will give you a sense for the quality of the queen. Tomorrow, we’ll assume you have decided to requeen and we’ll consider your next move.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeeping.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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20 Responses to Good Queen; Bad Queen

  1. The pheromones from open brood reportedly have a greater overall effect on the retardation of ovary development in workers. Queen pheromone is secondary. As the quantity of open brood diminishes with a failing or absent queen, the ovaries of the workers are likely to develop. I learned this from Dee Lusby and Michael Bush.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. api101 says:

    Thanks for the article, but I can say that it’s fairly easy to requeen a hive with laying workers. When you shake the frames at a reasonable distance from the hive, the laying workers aren’t able to fly back home because they have never left the hive.
    After this you can insert a caged queen. I never had any problems with this method.
    However, shaking the bees to let them enter in the other hives could be of course a viable solution too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      We always tell our students to shake at a distance from the hive. Along with the caged queen, do you also give the old stand a frame or two of brood?.

      Like

      • api101 says:

        Hello Ron, they told me to do so and maybe it helps, but even without brood frames I noticed that they still accepted the queen. I have to say by the way that maybe I’ve only been lucky, ’cause I’ve done this only 4 times.

        Like

      • Ron Miksha says:

        Well, four times successful seems to be quite a trend! Thanks for sharing the info!

        Like

    • Erik says:

      I don’t remember the article, but this is actually a myth. In testing laying workers have been able to fly back to the hive and resume laying. Great that it has worked out for you, but the research I’ve seen says not to count on this method. I have seen other beekeepers recommend this approach as well, so it must have some success.

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      • api101 says:

        Here in Italy is very common to fix the situation as I said. It’s not 100% guaranteed but chances are very good. Could It be something related to the queen strain maybe?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Erik says:

        Maybe? I’m not sure, but interesting that it is common in Italy. I wonder if the distance shaken from the hive has an impact.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ron Miksha says:

        I would think so – we recommend 10 or 15 metres (yards) for shaking.

        Liked by 1 person

      • api101 says:

        I’ve just checked out of curiosity in the last edition (2016) of one of the most influential beekeeping books here in Italy “Le api – Biologia, allevamento, prodotti”. According to the book the laying workers are the last bees born. The idea is that those bees never left the hive to accomplish the first orientation flights, and because of this they aren’t able to get back to the hive. I can’t tell if it’s true or not, but this is the book (there’s still the chance that the bees didn’t read the book though!).
        Here in Italy we work mainly with ligustica, carnica and sicula strains, so maybe it’s difficult to compare. By the way for me it’s always interesting and fascinating to explore and share experiences about how the honeybees live and adapt to their habitat around the world. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ron Miksha says:

        Thanks for giving us your perspective and sharing your experiences.

        Like

      • api101 says:

        About the distance to shake the bees, if you want to try, the books says “few meters” (not specified), but “just to be sure” I’ve done it at about 40 meters from the hive and it worked. But I have to say that they weren’t very happy, if you know what I mean.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Ron Miksha says:

        We know exactly what you mean!

        Like

      • Ron Miksha says:

        Thanks for the comments. Perhaps it is strain of bees, but we have quite a mixture of strains used by various beekeepers here and problems with queen acceptance in laying-worker hives are generally considered serious.
        Maybe it’s the way climate affects colony development. I think that you have (almost) year-round pollen and extended nectar flows giving a difference in colony strength (you likely have more constant brood and younger populations). Up here in western Canada, with long winters and sudden summers, we may have older bees and much less brood for months. If laying workers develop, they would be older, more numerous, and more aggressive.
        Most beekeepers here would not try to requeen a laying worker hive, but maybe at certain times your system would work out here, too. But I’m just guessing at this.

        Liked by 1 person

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  7. avwalters says:

    Great post–I’m going to share it with my bee group!

    Liked by 1 person

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