Pinching the Queen

Today I’ll write a few words about finding and murdering the old queen. We’ll assume that you have decided the queen must die. Harsh as that sounds, sometimes it’s the only way to save a hive. Think of the colony as a living creature (superorganism) and the queen as the heart. Or more to the point, the ovaries. You are conducting a transplant of a vital organ when the queen is removed and replaced.

If you still aren’t completely sure that requeening is the the right thing for you, then don’t do it. Maybe the feeble brood is due to other conditions, as noted last time. My favourite beekeeper, Dr Richard Taylor, used to say, “When in doubt, let the bees sort it out.” (Or some similar Taylorism.) Unless it’s a hive with a drone-laying queen and no supersedure cells, maybe you just can let a declining queen continue her reign well past her best before date. Maybe the bees will recognize the problem and replace her. But if the brood is seriously haphazard and limited in quantity, maybe it’s time to sharpen the axe.

So, you need to find the queen. For this, all your activities must be smooth and deliberate. This is not the time to show anyone how much smoke your smoker can produce or how loudly you can drop a hive lid to the ground. To find a queen, you have to almost not be there at all. If you work quickly yet gently, the queen will almost certainly be on a brood frame. After a gentle puff of cool white smoke at the entrance, open the hive and (if it’s multi-storied), determine which box has the most bees and the happiest cluster. That’s likely where the brood is and it’s a good place to start looking.

Remove a non-brood frame near the brood nest. Experienced beekeepers can usually see where brood is without removing frames. They look straight down between the top bars to get a good idea of the brood’s position. Chances are you worked the errant hive a few days earlier and realized the queen was failing (and ordered a new queen) – if that’s the case, you should already know which box and which frames have brood.

After removing the non-brood frame near the brood nest, quickly glance at both sides of it and put that frame aside, perhaps in an empty rim or empty nuc box – somewhere that the queen (if you missed her) will not be lost in the grass. Almost as quickly, examine the next frame, which likely has brood. I’m not going to tell you that you are looking for the biggest bee in the hive and queens are not drones. That should insult your intelligence. Instead, I want to focus on technique. First, spend three seconds scanning the side of the frame facing you. If you don’t see her, spend fifteen more seconds systematically looking at the frame as if you were speed reading, moving your eyes along the length of the frame about a third of the width at a time. This is not a good time to think about what you’ll make for dinner or where you’ll go on your next winter holiday. Focus. I’ve worked with queen breeders who were consistently five times faster than me at finding and caging queens from mating nucs. They could really focus, but they also had a knack for observation. It’s likely hard-wired into the DNA, but it’s a skill that the rest of us can usually develop to an acceptable extent.

Zen-like, you ooohm your way through the brood and you find the queen. Or you don’t. You missed her. She was right there, waving her little queenly hands at you, but you saw drones or noticed how yellow this year’s pollen is. If you’ve examined (and replaced) each brood comb in the hive without finding the queen, you might broaden your search. Check empty frames, lid, bottom, the grass. By now, using 30 seconds to a minute per frame, you’ve had the hive open for five or ten minutes and you lost. The queen won. This time. Close the hive and ask yourself why you hadn’t marked the queen the last time you saw her, beat yourself up for your poor beekeeping skills, and plan to return tomorrow.  Beekeepers reading this may have better tricks and ideas and hopefully will offer advice in the comments below. But if you haven’t found the queen early in your search, it becomes exponentially harder. You might as well admit that you’re a failure. But redeem yourself next time.

If you have found the queen and have decided that she’s had a good run but now she’s an old timer, snuffing her out is your next task. If you find this hard to do, I like you already. But for the good of the hive (which may fail to replace the queen and may end up dying of despair), remember how we started this post – time for an organ transplant. Make it quick and forget about it.

Where to hide the body?  A friend of mine suggests that beekeepers should drop the dead queen into the hive so the workers will know that she’s really, really dead. He says that you will see workers surround the dead queen, fanning furiously, acknowledging to the entire hive that the queen is dead. This, I’m told, should allow better acceptance of the new caged replacement queen. He is a smart beekeeper, so I have to give his idea a moment’s thought. And then disagree. I suspect that the activity around the dead body (if there actually is any) is not a funeral ritual but instead indicates that the bees are making a last effort to spread pheromones. I’d just as soon keep the dead queen’s body in a labeled and dated matchbox and collect all the matchboxes on a display shelf. What would you do with the body?

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.
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10 Responses to Pinching the Queen

  1. Good stuff Ron. Excellent and entertaining explanation.


  2. Claire says:

    I love this – informative and funny – thank you. I am definitely the beekeeper who can rarely find the Queen so much so that I generally don’t even get the chance to mark her!


  3. BeeNuts says:

    The graph is spot on, Ron. I went a whole season failing to find the queen in one colony. The following spring, when there were hardly any bees in the hive, I finally found her. The runtiest darkest little queen ever. I killed her and merged the colony with a stronger hive. And what happened to the body? I think I left it in the library with the murder weapon (a candelabrum!)

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. Erik says:

    Your heartless, Ron, heartless. I seem to be getting better at finding the queen, though better than never is only occasionally. Touching and marking a queen is just beyond me. Someday.

    Liked by 1 person

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