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?
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.
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.