Queen introduction

I’m probably less qualified to write about queen introduction than almost any other aspect of beekeeping. This is not because I’ve not introduced any queens. Quite the opposite, it’s something I do more or less routinely many times a season. 

The reason(s) I’m really not qualified to discuss the topic are:

  • I almost exclusively use the method I first used and I’ve not done any side-by-side comparisons with other methods to determine which work ‘best’. I have a method that works well enough i.e. somewhere between most of the time and almost always. That’s good enough for me.
  • I’m not aware of any recent scientific studies on the subject so cannot use those to make informed decisions – or interpretations – of why some methods work and others don’t 1.

Nevertheless, not being qualified has never stopped me before 2 and it’s a topic that some beekeepers struggle with and many beekeepers worry about.

Successful introduction ...

Successful introduction …

So here goes …

Art or science?

David Cushman/Roger Patterson make the point that: 

” … you can have two colonies in the same condition, in the same apiary, on the same day and if you introduce a queen in the same condition into each, one will succeed and the other will fail.”

This doesn’t mean that 50% of introductions fail (although it reads that way). What he/they mean is that there appears to be no rhyme or reason why one succeeds and the other does not.

On another day, both might succeed … or both might fail 🙁

Is it therefore an art or a science?

I don’t know. All you can do is get the basics correct and cross your fingers …

For understandable reasons, beekeepers feel rather precious about their queens. In particular, beekeepers who do not rear their own queens (and so have no spares waiting in the wings) can get a bit paranoid about queen introduction. 

What if it goes wrong?

The colony will potentially be left irretrievably queenless and – if you purchased the queen – you’ll be £40 out-of-pocket 3.

If you do rear your own queens you can perhaps be a bit more blasé about queen introductions. Potentially you can also do the sort of side-by-side comparisons I mentioned above … though there aren’t many studies where this has been done in a rigorous way. 

Most seem to find a method that works for them and then stick with it … which is what I’ve done and what I’m going to describe.

This is what I mean by ‘get the basics correct’.

I’ll also mention an alternate method I irregularly use for what I consider to be really difficult situations and/or really valuable queens.

But before we get into the methodology, it’s worth making some general comments about the state of the recipient colony and the queen being introduced.

Is the colony really queenless?

Trying to introduce a new queen into a colony that is not actually queenless will not end well.

One or both of the queens will probably not survive the experience. Either the workers will reject (and slaughter) the incoming queen, or the queens will fight and may both be damaged and lost.

It is therefore important that the recipient colony is queenless.

By queenless I mean that there is no queen present.

I do not mean no laying queen present. If you try and introduce a new queen into a colony with a failed (non laying) queen or a virgin (unmated) queen you will have problems.

Sod’s Law is explicit in these instances … the valuable new mated laying queen will be lost 🙁

Queen above the QE

A virgin queen (in this instance on the wrong side of the queen excluder)

The very best way to be sure the colony is queenless is to remove the current queen before introducing the new one. That necessitates finding the queen in the first place. 

What if you can’t find the queen but you’re sure that the colony is queenless?

Well, there are only two possibilities if you can’t find the queen, these are:

  1. The colony is queenless … you’re good to go.
  2. The colony is not queenless … but you’ve looked so hard for so long they’re now disturbed and running manically around the frames, getting more and more agitated and angry. Neither the bees or you are any sort of state to allow the queen to be discovered. Close the hive up. Have a cup of tea. Try again tomorrow.

I discussed methods of determining whether the colony is queenright (though not by extrapolation, the opposite i.e. queenless – see below) last season. Towards the end of that post I described the addition of a ‘frame of eggs’ to determine if the colony is queenright or not. I won’t repeat all the details here.

If the colony draw queen cells on the introduced frame then you can be sure that the colony is queenless. See (1) above … you’re good to go 🙂

Not queenless, but not queenright

That same post describes the concepts of queenright and queenless.

A colony that is queenright has a mated queen capable of laying fertilised eggs (though she may temporarily not be laying, for example due to a dearth of nectar).

A queenless colony contains no queen.

But there’s an intermediate stage … or potentially two intermediate stages if you allow me a little leeway.

A colony containing a failed queen that’s either not laying at all (and not going to restart), or only laying drone (unfertilised) eggs is neither queenright not queenless. This colony will not draw queen cells on the introduced frame. You cannot safely introduce a new queen into such a colony before first finding and removing the failed queen.

A colony containing laying workers will also not 4 produce queen cells from the introduced frame of eggs. 

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

A colony with laying workers behaves as though it’s queenright but is actually queenless. It’s not really an intermediate stage, but the consequences are the same. Again, they are highly unlikely to accept an introduced queen.

Deal with the laying workers first and then requeen … and good luck, laying workers can be a nightmare 🙁

OK … let’s assume the colony really is queenless … what’s the easiest way to introduce a new queen?

Add a sealed queen cell

Almost without exception, a queenless colony can be requeened by adding a sealed queen cell. The virgin queen will emerge, go on one or two mating flights and return and head the colony. This method of queen introduction is almost foolproof in my experience. 

Where do you get the queen cell from? Another colony, your mentor, a friend in your beekeeping association, a local queen rearer … necessity is the mother of invention 5.

Assuming the cell is a natural queen cell … cut the queen cell out of the comb with a generous amount of surrounding comb. Don’t risk damaging the queen cell. Keep it vertical … there are stages during development when the pupa is susceptible to damage. Ideally choose and use a cell 24-48 hours from emergence as they’re a lot more robust late in the development cycle.

Use your thumb to make an indentation towards the top of a frame near the centre of the broodnest, above some capped and emerging brood. Using the generous ‘edge’ of comb surrounding your chosen queen cell push this into the indentation so the cell is secure. Close up the colony and a) check for emergence in 48 hours or so 6 and b) a fortnight later for successful mating.

Adding a grafted queen to a colony

If the cell is from a grafted larvae it is even easier … press the plastic cell cup holder into the comb and push the frames together. I describe this in a recent discussion of grafting.

How successful is this method of ‘queen’ introduction?

I’d estimate at least 85%.

A very small percentage of queen cells fail to emerge (or rather, the queen fails to emerge from the cell … but you knew what I meant 😉 ).

A slightly larger percentage of queens fail to mate (or fail to return from a mating flight). But, even in a bad season, it’s rarely more than 10-15%.

The new queen is accepted by the colony because she emerged there and they all live happily ever after 😉 .

What?

I know, I know … that’s not really queen introduction.

You’re right. But it works. Very well.

These are the two methods I use for queen introduction.

Candy-plugged queen cage

I have a large supply 7 of JzBz queen introduction and shipping cages. 

JzBz queen cages

JzBz queen cages

I really like them because they were free they are reusable, they have a tube-like entrance that can be plugged with candy/fondant and they have a central region to protect the queen from aggressive workers outside the cage. 

Some cages offer no areas of refuge for the queen and workers can damage the queen through the perforations. Avoid cages that are all perforations.

The JzBz cages can be purchased with a removable plastic cap (shown below the cage in the image). These fit over the end of the tube and can seal the cage until you judge the colony is likely to gracefully receive the new queen … as described below 8.

JzBz queen introduction and shipping cage

Using a JzBz cage for queen introduction:

  • Plug the tube of the JzBz cage with queen candy or fondant. Queen candy can be purchased commercially and kept frozen for long periods. I almost always use fondant these days as I have spare boxes of the stuff from autumn feeding.
  • Add a short piece of wire or a cocktail stick through the perforations at one end of the cage to hang the cage – entrance tube pointing downwards – between two frames. Do this before adding the queen to avoid risking skewering the queen at a later stage 9
  • Place the queen in the cage without any attendants (see below for comments on removing them). Close and seal the cage. Seal the candy tube with the plastic cap.
  • Hang the cage in the centre of the broodnest, above some emerging brood. Leave the colony for 24 hours.

The idea here is that the colony gets the chance to accept the new queen without getting the opportunity to slaughter her.

Look for signs of aggression

Colonies that have been queenless for a few hours (say 2-24) before adding the new queen are usually very willing to accept a replacement. Adding a queen immediately after removing the old queen is likely to result in some aggression to the caged queen.

Check the colony after 24 hours. I usually lift the cage out and place it gently on the top bars to observe the interaction of the workers and the queen.

Checking for aggression

If the colony show no aggression to the caged queen – look for bees trying to sting through the cage or biting at the cage – then remove the plastic cap and re-hang the cage between the frames.

If they show aggression leave them another 24 hours and check again 10

Once you remove the cap the queen will be released by the workers after they eat through the candy/fondant. This takes just a few hours. 

Check again a week later to ensure the colony has accepted the queen.

Nicot introduction cage

I use the method described above for almost every queen I introduce. 

The only exception is if I have to requeen a colony that has previously not accepted a queen using the method described above. Usually such a colony will also be broodless (just based on the timings of determining they are queenless and failing once to successfully introduce a queen). 

Under these circumstances I use a Nicot queen introduction cage.

Nicot queen introduction cages

I find a frame from another colony with a hand-sized patch of emerging brood. The comb needs to be level so that the cage can sit on top without gaps for the queen to escape.

Then do the following:

  1. Remove all the bees from the frame and place the Nicot cage over the brood using the short plastic ‘legs’ to hold it into the comb 11.
  2. Secure the cage in place using one or two elastic bands.
  3. Introduce the queen through the removable – and eminently losable 12 – door.

In practice it’s easier to do this in the order 3-1-2 … place the queen on the frame, cover with the cage and then secure it with the elastic band.

Add the frame and cage to the hive, locating it centrally. Push the frames together. 

The emerging workers will immediately accept the queen and feed her. Other workers will feed the queen through the edges of the cage.

One corner of the cage has an entrance tunnel that can be filled with candy/fondant. I don’t think I’ve ever used this. In my experience the colony releases the queen by burrowing under one edge of the cage after a few days. If they don’t, check and remove the cage a week later.

I don’t think I’ve ever failed to successfully introduce a queen using one of these cages, but it’s a relatively small sample size.

Thorne’s sell a metal mesh version of this cage that has integral ‘legs’. I’ve not used it, but the principle is the same. Keep it in a box or the sharp cut metal edges will butcher your fingers – it’s difficult picking up queens with heavily bandaged digits.

You could also ‘fold’ your own from mesh floor material. One with deeper ‘sides’ could be pushed down to the midrib of the comb, so reducing the chances of the bees burrowing under the edge of the cage.

Mated or virgin? 

I use the JzBz cage for introducing either mated or virgin queens. I’m not aware of any significant difference in the acceptance rate between them. 

However, it’s worth noting that acceptance is dependent upon essentially ‘matching’ the expectations of the colony with the state of the queen. 

A virgin queen will be less likely to be accepted by a colony from which a mated laying queen has recently been removed. Leave them 24-48 hours. 

Likewise, I remove nearly mature queen cells from a colony I’m requeening with a mated queen. I don’t want to risk an early-emerged virgin queen from ‘raining on the parade’ of the introduced queen.

I’ve only used the Nicot cage for mated queens. Since the latter is usually used for a broodless colony I want the minimum possible delay before there is new brood in the colony.

Alone or with attendants?

If you purchase a queen and receive her by post there will be a few workers caged with her.

I always remove these although some suggest that they do not adversely influence acceptance rates 13. I remove them because I’m a bit paranoid about viruses … these workers come from an ‘unknown’ hive (quite possibly not the same one that the queen came from) and will carry a potentially novel range of Deformed wing virus variants (and possibly others as well).

I don’t want these in my hive so I remove the workers

It’s also worth noting that Wyatt Mangum has an interesting report in American Bee Journal indicating that the presence of attendants significantly increases the acceptance time 14 for an introduced queen 15. In some cases the presence of attendants resulted in the colony showing aggression for longer than it took for the bees to eat through the candy plug … that’s not going to end well for the queen.

The safest way to remove attendants is to open the caged queen in a dim room with a single closed window. The bees will fly to the window (perhaps with a little encouragement).

A mated queen probably will not fly at all and can be re-caged. A virgin queen can fly well and will also end up at the window. Gently grab her by her wings and re-cage her.

You can do all this in the apiary … it requires confidence and dexterity. I know this because I recently tried it with a virgin queen in my apiary, using lashings of overconfidence and hamfistedness.

She flew away 🙁

Inevitably you can buy a gadget to help you with this – the queen muff

Conclusions

There is always a slight risk that queen introductions will not be successful. The queen pheromones have such a fundamental role in colony maintenance that disrupting them – or suddenly changing them – may lead to rejection. 

However, the methods described above are sufficiently successful that I’ve not found the need to look for better alternatives. They’re also sufficiently fast that I’m not tempted to try some of the ‘quick and dirty’ approaches 16 to save time.

Finally, it’s worth noting that it is usually easier to requeen a nucleus colony than a full hive. If I ever bought one of those €500 breeder queens I’d introduce her to a nuc first and then unite the nuc back with the original colony.

But that’s not going to happen 😉


 

Footnotes

  1. The best source of comparative assessments is probably the ‘old’ beekeeping literature like Snelgrove or Laidlaw, though they are often not properly controlled studies. There are scientific studies of queen introduction, but they tend to be methodological, rather than explaining why certain methods work when others do not. For starters perhaps try Szabo T.I. (1977) Behavioural studies of queen introduction in the honey bee. VI. Multiple queen introduction, J. Apic. Res. 16, 65–83 and the other papers in this series.
  2. My only beekeeping qualification is the BBKA ‘Basic’ and my dislike of examinations – having done too many during my training and set/marked too many in academia – means I’m unlikely to do any more.
  3. Or €500
  4. Or at least not dependably in my experience … it seems to depend upon the proportion of laying workers, or how long the colony has had laying workers in it.
  5. But I can guarantee that the offer of a bottle of good red wine will make this task much easier.
  6. Late in the day … don’t risk disturbing an orientation or mating flight by the virgin queen. Just check the cell has been vacated. You do not need to find the virgin queen.
  7. Literally a bucket load I was generously given several years ago.
  8. The fork-like spike thingy attached to the cap is to hang the cage from the comb. You remove it and push it into the ‘top’ of the cage – see the first picture in this post. I’ve not used these for about 5 years and instead leave them attached to the cap to help me find the caps in the bee bag.
  9. Don’t ask. Just don’t ask.
  10. And, if necessary, repeat again … and if they continue to show aggression it’s likely the colony is not queenless.
  11. The ‘legs’ are easily lost or broken. Use half matchsticks as replacements
  12. Most of mine are replaced with a piece of tape with the sticky side covered to avoid gluing the queen to the door!
  13. See McCutcheon D. (2001) Queen introduction, Bee World 82, 5–21.
  14. The time before the colony stops showing aggression to the new queen.
  15. Mangum W. (2020) Queen introduction Part 2: The effect of attendant bees. ABJ 160(7):763.
  16. Like the smoke and shake methods e.g. smoke the colony well and dump the bees and the queen at the hive entrance … no thanks!

18 thoughts on “Queen introduction

  1. Steve Donohoe

    Hi David, I seem to be much better at introducing queens than I used to be in the early days. I think it’s because I’m much better now at making sure they are queen less before I put a new one in. I also use the push in cages for introduction to a large colony and it works very well, although half of the time the queen is released by the bees before I come round a few days later to do it.
    best wishes, Steve (:=

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Steve

      I agree … it’s one of those things that gets better with experience. The ability to ‘read’ whether a colony is truly queenless, contains a failed queen, a virgin queen or just a sulking queen is only really acquired after a lot of colonies have been opened (and possibly after several introduced queens have been condemned to a rather gruesome end 🙁 ).

      There are times in the season when the queen temporarily stops laying (no nectar coming in for example), when the colony is full of bees and when their temper gets worse (again, a nectar dearth). In my early years I’d have been sure the colony was queenless, and the sheer quantity of bees in the box would have probably prevented me from finding her even if I’d tried.

      Now I know better.

      Usually 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Andrew Cook

    Another great post David, thank you. At our teaching apiary, I was helping the manager check that queens had been released from fondant plugged introduction cages. In almost every case, the fondant plug had dried out and become so hard that the workers hadn’t managed to release the queen. There were mutterings about using several layers of newspaper secured with an elastic band next time.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Andrew

      I’ve had one of these just recently. I wrote about it in Little dramas, under the sub-heading Queen in the Cage. I often carry a couple of those JzBz cages in my jacket pocket, already plugged with fondant. I expect it had just dried out as you suggest.

      When this happens it’s not usually a problem. You don’t realise for a week or so after ‘releasing’ the queen, but the workers feed her through the cage and she’s gratefully accepted when you do finally let her out. All I usually do is open the cage and let her walk out into a seam of bees.

      I think I’ve had this happen with both a mated and virgin queen this season … which suggests I should perhaps replace the fondant with something a little less fossilised 😉

      Cheers
      David

      PS Dave Cushman writes about never using fondant, but using newspaper instead. Knowing my luck the elastic band would have perished when I wanted to use it …

      Reply
  3. Elaine Robinson

    Thanks David, I’ve just had 2 failed queen introduction through uniting over newspaper – massive disappointment. No idea why it went wrong, I opened one up after a week a young mated queen with 3 frames sealed brood into a queenless colony (removed all swarm / emergency cells first) to find emergency cells a week later and no eggs or queen to be seen. The other after a shorter period (2 days later I looked), I saw the queen and eggs, happy days, dismantled the unite & then found emergency cells a week later and no queen or eggs 🙁 Maybe I didn’t give the colony enough time before dismantling. So that’s knocked my confidence on the safest method, so I’m going to start caging the queen as well!

    Just a question about introducing queen cells. You mention introducing a queen that’s been made queenless for 2 hours before introduction, presumable so the pheromones are dissipated first. Is that the same for introducing a queen cell, in your experience, or can you add safely if added straight away (especially in out apiaries)? Just added one (good emergency cell on a comb, that was hard to protect) after making a colony queenless …guess I’ll find out soon!
    Thanks
    Elaine

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Elaine

      It happens … uniting over newspaper is usually very dependable but, like everything to do with bees, it can go wrong. Can’t guess what went wrong with the first, but I suspect they balled her when you looked in the second hive. I usually leave them a week and content myself with watching the shredded paper fall through the OMF.

      I’m pretty sure I’ve de-queened and added a queen cell more or less simultaneously. Successfully. I know I’ve done something like that once this season but the colony already had some 2-3 day old queen cells and so was thinking of swarming. I removed the queen, knocked back all the queen cells and added a near-emergence cell from my grafting. All went OK. Not quite what you asked, but the closest I’ve done recently.

      Good luck 🙂
      David

      Reply
  4. Fred

    Attendants or not to attendants, that is the question

    Hi David,

    Firstly sorry for the most truly awful pun😂

    However thanks for shining new light on one of beeks forums age old favourites.

    It’s make complete sense that leaving attendants in only leads to initial aggression which can only prolong a successful queen intro.(I hadn’t even considered disease implications)

    I usually (used to !) leave them in and do initial check at day 2-3 and often find between 1-ALL the attendants dead/killed/same difference while the queen is absolutely fine and I guess this is due to initial fighting.

    I think difference in strain of bees between queen and the receiving colony usually needs an extra few days on top so entire process can take a week but it’s worth the wait for success.

    In Ireland we are somehow evading yet another poor summer so beekeeping is an enjoyable frenzy right now so how you find time to write is beyond me but thank you so much.

    Hope your season is going well

    All best

    Fred

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Fred

      I think I’ll return to the ‘attendants’ issue again as it’s interesting. I only used to consider the disease angle, so the recent report I cited from Mangum makes interesting reading. I think some of the earlier studies I cited suggested there wasn’t a huge impact, so guess the difference may be due to exactly how the studies were conducted.

      Lime is about to start here … buds are near to opening. Very welcome as it’s been a quiet couple of weeks and the colonies have been nearly moribund.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Jeremy Quinlan

    Great stuff – as usual! But I am slightly surprised that you say: “Colonies that have been queenless for a few hours (say 2-24) before adding the new queen are usually very willing to accept a replacement. ” Don’t queenless colonies begin to raise new queens almost as soon as they realise they are queenless? – if they have the young brood – so wouldn’t it be better to add your replacement queen straight away, say within 20 minutes?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Jeremy

      Yes, the colony can tell it is queenless within a very short period, but the previous queen’s pheromones will still be circulating. If you add the new queen immediately she’s likely to get a harsh reception. This shouldn’t be a problem if you use a cage to protect her and keep it capped until the workers stop showing aggression to it/her.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Roy Haynes

    I found the Thorne’s press-in cage to be useless. The legs are quite long and the sides quite shallow, such that it is not possible to press it in far enough. The bees just burrow under the sides and kill the new queen. I’ve had much better results with a homemade version with 1″ deep sides and no legs, which I push down to the midrib all round. I’ve never tried the Nicot version.

    Incidentally , I use Candipolline to plug introduction cages. If kept in a plastic bag it doesn’t seem to dry out and go hard like fondant does.

    Best wishes
    Roy Haynes

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Roy

      Thank you for those useful comments. I’ve not tried the Thorne’s Quintrex cage. I suspect it’s similar in dimensions to the Nicot one which will stay put, but often needs an elastic band around the frame for security. I’ll try Candipolline when I next get a chance to purchase some without crippling delivery costs 🙁

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Mrs Lisa Day

    Hi David,

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    I’d like to add my method of removing attendants from an introduction cage …. I put the unopened introduction cage in a clear supermarket freezer bag, put my (nitrile gloved) hand in the bag and seal it around my forearm with an elastic band. I then open the cage and release the bees. The bees are all confined in the bag and I can then maneuver the cage back over the queen and seal her in. The remaining attendees can then be released. This, as a beginner, felt a lot less stressful than releasing the queen and attendants inside a car then trying to pick her up again – far too much possibility for queenie to disappear into one of the dashboard vents or right up inside the top of the windscreen.

    I guess with a little practise, you could also mark/clip the queen in there too.

    Thanks again,
    Best wishes
    Lisa

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Lisa

      You’re clearly a lot more dextrous than I am 😉 . Thank you for the alternative suggestion to the ‘queen muff’ listed in the post.

      I agree about the nooks and crannies in the car … far too many for comfort. I opened the cage in my office once, not remembering the high ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows. I had to stand precariously on a chair to recover her.

      With Best Wishes
      David

      Reply
  8. Hans Weijman

    A most helpful post, as ever David. I use all the methods you describe and others too. For instance the LASI method of smoking a queen in. Have a queenless colony that’s not had a queen for 4 days. Smoke the colony very heavily then simply run the new, mated Queen in through the entrance with lots of smoke. Never fails. I think LASI had a video of this process.
    Using an introduction cage consisting of a bee excluder that takes a whole frame. Put a full frame into the cage with enough bees to look after the Queen & stores. After 2 days check and as you mentioned observe whether there’s aggression. If all is well, just remove the frame from the cage and hang onto the colony.
    Try and give the bees what they expect, a closed queen cell, Virgin or mated queen. These preferably from a related colony, daughter, sister, cousin.
    By the way, you sometimes refer to your students harvesting larva in the bee shed. Are these used for other purposes than investigating bee viruses?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Hans

      I’m aware there are loads of other queen introduction methods, some of which I’ve used (successfully) and others which I’ve not tried. I’m a bit unadventurous … by the time I’ve decided to requeen a colony I usually want to ensure it works, so stick to what I know and trust.

      The bee frame excluder you describe is essentially the same – in principle at least, if not design – as the Nicot/Quintrex-type cages. I’ve never monitored when the bees release the queens from these. Almost always I check after a week and she’s out … it might happen in 48 hours.

      We harvest larvae or pupae to grow on in incubators for virus transmission and evolution studies. Like queen introduction, we stick to what we know 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  9. Ian Robinson

    Hi David – another useful and timely post thanks. Can I suggest a possible caveat to making a colony queenless by removing the queen. If your queen is older there may be value in leaving it a few days after she has been removed to see if it starts to draw queen cells before introducing a new queen. I have previously removed a queen and found that the colony went on quite happily with the previously unseen and unmarked supersedure daughter. There is a danger (for me anyway) that I stop noticing queens once I have seen the marked one! Many thanks

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Ian

      You make a good point … I usually hope (or assume) I’ve been observant enough to see supersedure cells but I’m sure I’ve missed them a few times. I did try and stress the importance of the recipient colony being queenless. I know I’ve got it wrong a few times … you learn by experience!

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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