You don’t need to see the queen during your weekly inspection of the colony. There are clues that are usually enough to tell you the colony is queenright. These include the general temper and demeanour of the colony, the presence of ‘polished’ cells ready for the queen to lay eggs in and, of course, the presence of eggs.
And, of course, eggs only tell you the queen was present when they were laid … so sometime in the last three days.
Seeing is believing
If you really want to be certain there is a queen present – for example, because you need to put her in a specific place for swarm control using a Pagden artificial swarm or the nucleus method – then you need to find the queen.
I’ve discussed this before so won’t cover the subject again.
Having found her, how can you make it easier to find her again?
The obvious (pun intended) thing to do it to mark her in a way that makes her distinctive. She will therefore be easy to see amongst the thousands of her daughters running around the hive.
There are additional advantages to marking the queen.
The presence of a blob of paint also provides some temporal information.
If you find an unmarked queen in a hive that you know was previously occupied by a marked queen then:
- the colony has swarmed and requeened itself … and your inspections are too infrequent!
- the marked queen has been superceded 2. It’s not unusual to find an unmarked queen in a hive at the first inspection of the season, suggesting that the colony superceded the queen late in the previous year, or …
- the paint has worn away 😉
If you use different coloured markings for different years you can even determine the age of the queen.
Tipp-Ex, Humbrol or Posca
You mark the queen by placing a contrasting spot of coloured paint on the top of her thorax.
Tipp-Ex (typing correction fluid) works perfectly well though the usual applicator brush is a bit too broad. It dries rapidly and the aliphatic hydrocarbon solvents it contains do not appear to adversely affect the odour of the queen.
Tipp-Ex is only available in white. Contrasting certainly, but this gives no opportunity to indicate the year the queen was reared.
As an alternative you can use one of the ~180 Humbrol Enamel paints. These are used by model makers to paint their locomotives, toy soldiers or Airfix kits and so are available in a wide range of not very useful shades like Dark Camouflage Grey or RAF Blue.
Fortunately they are also sold in some rather strident yellows, reds and greens that should be visible in the hive.
Humbrol Enamel paints are sold in small, rather fiddly little tins. Not ideal when you’re wearing gloves and a beesuit. They need shaking/mixing before use, open easily with the thin blade of a hive tool and can be applied with the end of a matchstick.
Despite the solvent base of Humbrol Enamel paint, it doesn’t dry particularly fast. I’ve only used it a few times and abandoned it in favour of …
Posca are water-based art pens. Their model PC-5M has a bullet tip ~2.5mm in diameter and so combines paint and applicator in one easy-to-use package. These pens also come in a wide range of colours.
Shock news! Beekeepers in agreement.
Beekeepers use different colours to indicate the year a particular queen was reared. Since queens rarely live more than 3 years a total of 5 different colours are sufficient to age-mark queens without confusion.
Amazingly 3, as far as I’m aware all beekeepers use the same queen marking colour scheme.
|Colour||Use in Year ending|
|White||1 or 6|
|Yellow||2 or 7|
|Red||3 or 8|
|Green||4 or 9|
|Blue||5 or 0|
Queens reared this year (2019) should therefore be marked green.
Any colour as long as it’s white
I’m red-green colourblind. This means I struggle to discriminate between some reds and greens. It also means that I ‘trust’ colours (or my ability to distinguish between them) less. Subtle differences are often ignored 4.
A bright yellow dot on the thorax of a queen is easy to see … except in a colony that is piling in lots of OSR pollen, when every fifth worker is loaded down with bright yellow corbiculae.
I therefore only mark my queens white or blue.
These are both colours that I find easy to see, that are rarely present in pollen baskets or elsewhere in the hive, and so are very distinctive.
I used to alternate odd and even years until my blue Posca pen stopped working 🙁
My white Posca pen has just starting playing up. If you search you can find them for about £5 for three and they last for years.
Easier said than done
I started an earlier section with the words “You mark the queen by placing a contrasting spot of coloured paint on the top of her thorax”.
Beginners can find this a daunting task.
After all, isn’t the queen the most important and precious member of the hive?
What if you squash her by accident? Or the other bees don’t like the smell of the paint and attack her? What if she flies away?
OK, the first of these is a disaster 5, but is relatively easily avoided using one of the methods described below. The second is unlikely if you let the paint dry properly and very unlikely if you use a water-based Posca pen.
The third is also unlikely … (mated) queens are generally reluctant to fly and, if they do, they fly poorly. You can generally pick her up from the grass near your feet 6. If you lose sight of her, close up the hive and carefully leave the area (watch where you step). She will usually return to the hive.
So, although it is easier said than done, marking queens is not that difficult and is a very useful skill to become competent and confident at 7.
To mark the queen she must be immobilised. There are essentially three ways to do this:
- On the frame, using a press in cage. Also called a crown of thorns (or crown of thorne’s, depending where you purchased it 😉 ) cage.
- Off the frame in a handheld queen marking cage.
- Off the frame simply holding her between your thumb and forefinger.
Crown of thorns or press in cage
The press in cage is a wood, plastic or metal ring with spikes protruding from one side. Over the top is a thread (or plastic in cheaper versions) mesh. You find the queen on the frame, place the press in cage over her without spearing her, or her retinue, push down gently to immobilise her and then apply a dab of paint to her thorax.
This is easier said than done.
Firstly, there are usually lots of bees on the frame the queen is on. Isolating her from her daughters can be tricky. The more you chase her around the frame the faster she runs … and then she disappears around the side bar and you have to start all over again.
You need three hands. You cannot hold the frame, the cage and the pen. The cage needs to be held when you use the pen. You therefore must place the frame down horizontally (usually on the top bars of the other frames) and the bees on the underside may not appreciate this.
As soon as you’ve isolated her the workers clamber on top of the press in cage, obscuring your view of the queen.
Your view isn’t good anyhow as you are hunched over the frame, almost certainly blocking the light and making everything more difficult to see.
Is it obvious I’m not a big fan of the press in cage?
I know I still carry one as I periodically stick the spikes through my fingers when rummaging around in my bee bag. However, I’ve not used it for years and far prefer to use a handheld queen marking cage.
Handheld queen marking cage
The simplest of these consist of a cylinder with one end covered in a thin open mesh made of thread and a foam-topped plunger.
Alternatively, and my favourite, the thread mesh is replaced with a series of horizontal plastic bars that are too narrow for the queen to crawl between.
You pick the queen off the frame, drop her into the cylinder, insert the plunger, immobilise her gently against the mesh/bars and apply the paint to her thorax.
Wait a minute.
You pick the queen off the frame?
That’s the easy part. Queen bees are naturally equipped with two convenient handles.
The thumb and forefinger of an ungloved or thinly gloved hand are fabulously dextrous. It is easy to pick up the queen by one or both wings, move her away from the frame, put the frame down, pick up the queen marking cage and drop her in.
From frame to cage in a few seconds
I’m right-handed and this description is for right-handers.
Hold the frame (usually by the lug) with the queen on it in your left hand. Gently rotate the frame so the face is well-lit 8. Wait for the queen to be away from the edge of the frame. Wait until she’s walking towards you. Gently clench your third, fourth and fifth fingers, extending you ‘pincer-like’ thumb and forefinger. Slowly approach the queen from behind with this hand as she calmly walks across the frame 9.
Without grabbing or snatching calmly grasp her by the wing (or wings) and lift her from the frame. If you miss and just nudge her or she turns away at the last moment don’t harry her across the frame trying repeatedly.
Let her calm down.
Get your breath back.
Gently put the frame down. Ideally, place it protruding at an angle in between the frames of the brood box. Take your time. Don’t drop the frame or allow it to tip over. If you balance it nicely with the lug wedged inside the box edge and the bottom bar balanced on the runner you’ll easily be able to reintroduce the queen after marking her.
Once your left hand is free pick up the cylinder of the queen marking cage. Drop the queen in. Cover it with two fingers (holding it between your thumb and fourth and fifth fingers). Pick up the plunger with your right hand and, after gently shaking the queen to the bottom of the cage, insert the plunger. Invert the cage, gently push the plunger up to trap the queen – thorax uppermost – and hold the plunger in place between your fourth and fifth fingers and palm, while holding the cage cylinder between thumb and forefinger (see the image further up the page).
You can then use your right hand to apply the paint.
Once you have learnt to pick the queen off the frame it’s an easy transition to do away with the queen marking cage and simply hold her on the back of your left forefinger, trapping her legs – so immobilising her – with your thumb and third finger. Ted Hooper’s book Guide to Bees and Honey has a good description of this 10.
This is easier without gloves. Even very thin nitrile gloves makes holding the queen immobile more difficult 11. Since I always wear gloves to reduce propolis staining and potential pathogen transmission I use a handheld queen marking cage.
Final comments on handling the queen
Picking the queen up with gloves on is straightforward if the gloves are thin enough. It’s easy with nitrile gloves and possible with Marigold-type washing up gloves.
Don’t try it with the large leather ‘beekeeping gauntlets’ as they give you hands like feet as a PhD student once said of the dexterity of my laboratory skills 🙁
If you hold the queen by both wings she will wave her legs in the air and curl her abdomen, but be unable to do much else.
If you pick her up by one wing she usually manages to swivel round and grab your thumb with her feet. Don’t worry, you won’t pull her wing off.
But thinking that will might make you lessen your grip … at which point she will calmly (or not so calmly) walk up your thumb. Don’t panic. She won’t sting and is very unlikely to take flight.
However you immobilise her the actual marking is straightforward. The goal is to place a small dab of paint on the top of her thorax.
Not on her head, her abdomen or her wings.
Small means 2-3 mm across. Don’t overload whatever you are using to apply the paint.
If it’s a matchstick just touch the surface of the paint (or Tipp-Ex).
If it’s a Posca pen, press the nib a couple of times against a firm surface (hive lid, thumb etc) to load the pen, check that it delivers the right amount with a light touch and then mark the queen.
I like to step away from the hive to mark the queen, perhaps to a corner of the apiary in light shade. This separates me from the flying bees and so I can focus on the job, literally, in hand 12.
Releasing the queen
Allow the paint to dry for a few minutes before releasing the queen.
If you’re holding the queen you’ll have to stay holding her while this happens (or put her in a matchbox). Enjoy your time with her … she’s going to be working hard for you 🙂
With a handheld queen marking cage I move the plunger down an inch or so and place her in the shade while I get on with something else for a couple of minutes.
With a press in cage just leave it a couple of minutes before gently lifting it off. This is the easiest and least traumatic way to release the queen (and one of the only advantages of this marking method). The queen is already on the frame and surrounded by bees, so there are no shocks or surprises.
The important thing to avoid when releasing the queen is to suddenly drop her onto the top bars or into the hive. There’s a possibility the the workers will ball and kill her.
Gently offer her to a gap between the top bars, or to the face of the frame you left protruding from the top of the hive. With the handheld cage it’s easy to just rest it on the top bars and watch.
She will usually calmly walk in and disappear from sight.
- Or careless and clumsy manipulation of the colony by the beekeeper, making the bees defensive.
- Or might even be being superceded right now. Check the colony for the marked queen as well!
- Though of course this is sensible as it enables queens to be sold without confusion, whether being bought locally or from the other side of the country or continent.
- Don’t worry, I’m not living in a dull, lifeless, monochromatic world. I still see lots of colours, I just can’t tell whether it’s a shade of red or green that 92% of you would have no problems with.
- Particularly for her.
- Don’t rush about in a panic if she does take off. Stand still and watch her.
- Not least because marking the queen means you must find her first, which is also a useful skill.
- Depending upon your strength you might need to place the other lug on the top bar of an adjacent frame to provide support.
- Since she’s walking towards you your hand does not obscure the view of the queen.
- Which I couldn’t improve on so won’t repeat it here.
- And if you take these sort of gloves off they’re almost impossible to put on again.
- I also clip one wing of my queens to prevent, or at least help prevent, the loss of swarms. I’ll deal with this subject in the future.