Queenright … or not?

A brief follow-up to the (ridiculously long) post last week about leaving queen cells in the colony after a) it swarms, or b) implementing swarm control 1.

How long does it take for the new queen to emerge, mate and start laying? 

And what if she doesn’t?

How did we get here?

We are approaching the peak of the beekeeping season. Colonies have built up strongly and should now be topped by comfortingly heavy supers of spring honey. 

Mind your back 😯 

The box you inspected in early April and found three frames of brood in is now bursting at the seams with bees and brood. Everything is getting busier and bigger. You may have already run out of supers or – lucky you – are frantically extracting to free-up supers to return to the colonies.

Depending upon your location you may already have discovered that your swarm prevention efforts, whilst temporarily effective, were soon treated with disdain as the colonies started to build queen cells.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

You are now using some form of swarm control and the colony now contains a mature queen cell.

Or they swarmed … leaving a mature queen cell 🙁

Queenless colonies

Is a colony with a charged, capped, queen cell queenless? 

A philosophical question 🙂

I guess the answer is technically no, but practically yes.

There’s clearly a queen in the hive, but she’s really a potential queen. To be useful to the colony (and the beekeeper) she has to emerge, mature, mate and start laying.

It’s at that stage that the colony can be described as queenright.

All of this takes time and all of which significantly changes the tempo of the season.

Colonies that are requeening should generally not be disturbed and the change from full-on to full-off can feel strange.

Doubly so, because the lack of reassuring inspections can make the wait seem interminable. 

It’s tempting to have a quick peek … after all, what harm could it do?

Tick tock

The development of a queen takes 16 days from egg to eclosed virgin. The first three days as an egg, then six days as a larva before a further week as a developing pupa. The rapid development is due to the very rich diet that queens are fed in the first couple of days. This triggers a host of changes in gene expression 2 which dramatically alters the morphology, behaviour and longevity of the queen from the genetically identical worker.

After a virgin queen emerges she needs to mature sexually which takes 5-6 days. During this period they don’t look or behave much like queens. They tend to be quite small and, if disturbed, rush about the frame skittishly. They are also a lot more willing to fly than a mature laying queen – you have been warned! 3

Where have all my young girls gone?

What a beauty

Virgin queens are not lavished with attention by a retinue of workers, all of which often makes them more difficult to find in the hive.

The queen goes on one or more mating flights which usually take place on warm, calm, sunny early afternoons.

She then returns to the hive and, 2-3 days later, starts laying eggs. A queen that has just started laying sometimes lays more than one egg per cell. However, she settles down fast and will usually lay in a reasonably tight pattern in the centre of one of the middle frames in the brood nest.

Have patience

Add all those timings up and you have a minimum of two weeks between the capping of the queen cell and the day when she starts laying.

To be sure, you need to know when the queen cell was capped which is difficult if you’re dealing with a colony that swarmed. Was the cell capped on the day the colony swarmed (not unusual), or was it capped during the lousy weather a few days earlier that then delayed the emergence of the swarm?

It is unwise to disturb a virgin queen.

All sorts of things can go wrong. You might inadvertently crush her during an inspection 4 or scare her into taking flight and getting lost in the long grass.

Equally calamitous would be inspecting the colony on the nice, calm, warm mid-afternoon when she decides to go off on her mating flight. She’ll be off consorting with the local drones for about 10 – 30 minutes, and may go on more than one flight on subsequent days. If she returns to find the roof and supers off, the brood frames out and smoke being puffed everywhere she may never find the hive entrance.

Inspecting a colony

None of the above ends well.

Minima and maxima

The two weeks detailed above is the absolute minimum. I don’t check these things routinely but think the only time I’ve really seen it taking that short a period (from cell sealing to a mated laying queen) is when queen rearing using mini-mating nucs.

Mini-nucs …

Queens tend to get mated in these very fast if the weather is suitable. I don’t know why 5.

But, if the weather is unsuitable, irrespective of the hive type, mating will be delayed.

By ‘unsuitable’ I mean lousy. If it’s raining persistently or blowing a hoolie the queen will not venture forth.

If it’s cool (16 – 18°C) and cloudy she might, particularly if she’s of the darker Apis mellifera mellifera strain. 

But then again, she might not 🙁 

All of which means that the two weeks quoted really is a minimum.

What if it rains for a month? The virgin queen has a ‘shelf life’. If she does not get mated within ~26-33 days of emergence she is unlikely to get successfully mated at all.

Here we go again ...

No queen mating today …

To summarise, it will take a minimum of two weeks from queen cell capping to having a laying queen in the hive. If 40 days elapse before the queen is mated (again from cell capping) it is likely that she will be a dud.

Three weeks

Assuming the weather has been OK for queen mating I usually leave a minimum of three weeks between closing the hive up with a capped queen cell and looking for the mated queen. 

There’s little to be gained by rummaging around the hive before then … and a whole lot to be potentially lost.

If you do open the hive up too early – assuming none of the nightmare scenarios above occur – what can you expect to see?

Lift the dummy board out, prise out the last frame and then split the hive somewhere in the middle of the remaining frames i.e. don’t work through frame by frame, this isn’t a routine inspection, it’s a Royal Checkup.

If you look around the middle of the face of the central frames you can often see polished cells. These have been cleaned and prepared by the workers for the queen to lay in. They’re particularly obvious if the comb is a bit old and dark – then they really do look polished and shiny.

If there are polished cells present, but no eggs, I’m then reasonably confident that there’s a queen in the hive but that she’s not started laying yet (but is probably mated).

There’s no point in looking for her. Close the hive up and leave it another week.

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

If she is laying, leave her be. Wait until she’s laid up a few frames and you can tell she has a good laying pattern of worker brood i.e. look at the appearance of the sealed brood, then find her and mark her 6.

Breathe a sigh of relief … your colony is again queenright.

Five weeks

If five weeks 7 have elapsed between leaving a freshly capped cell in the hive and the non-appearance of eggs I start to fear the worst.

The colony will now have no brood – it all emerged about two and half weeks ago – and the lack of brood pheromone means there’s a possibility that the colony will develop laying workers

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

There may be a queen present, but she’s rapidly becoming an ageing spinster

In this situation it is probably wise to decide what Plan B is … how will you ‘rescue’ the colony?

If you leave the colony for another week or fortnight you might find a laying queen, but you probably won’t. During this period the colony will dwindle further in size and strength 8

Plan B

You effectively have four choices:

  1. Unite the colony with a known queenright colony.
  2. Requeen the colony with a mated, laying queen 9.
  3. Add a mature capped queen cell to the colony. Start nervously pacing the apiary again waiting for her to emerge, mature, mate and start laying.
  4. Allow the colony to rear their own queen by providing a frame of eggs (see below).

It is important to find and dispatch the ‘failed’ queen if you are going to do 1, 2 or 3. The queen may have failed to get mated but she might still be able to kill a challenger queen in the hive. 

Uniting the colony is often the best and safest option. It’s quick. It uses the bees remaining in the colony immediately and it strengthens another hive. It’s my preferred option … but I have quite a few colonies to work with. If you have just one (and you shouldn’t have) it’s clearly a non-starter. 

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive …

Adding an expensive purchased mated laying queen (or a cheap one) can be risky. Terminally queenless and broodless colonies are often tricky to requeen. The most successful way I’ve found to do this 10 is to use a large cage pinned over a frame of emerging brood. And even then it doesn’t always work 🙁 

If you already have laying workers it is not worth trying to requeen the colony – they’ll almost certainly kill her. I usually try once to ‘rescue’ a laying worker hive (details here), but then shake them out.

Adding a capped queen cells can work if the colony is queenless but you will have another long wait ahead of you … and all the time the colony is dwindling in size.

She emerges into a population of geriatric workers. Far from ideal.

But what if you can’t find the queen?

Is the colony really queenless?

Perhaps she mated quite late because of poor weather and is about to get started?

Perhaps she failed to mate and is just lurking in there waiting to slaughter the £40 Buckfast queen you’re about to add 🙁 

Frame of eggs

Most of these questions can be answered by adding a ‘frame of eggs’.

A queenless colony will start to rear a new queen if presented with eggs and larvae.

A queenright colony will not.

If you are unsure whether a colony is queenright add a frame containing a good number of eggs. I usually like to use a full brood frame also containing some larvae and sealed brood. The brood pheromone will help hold back laying worker development. The new young bees that emerge will bolster the hive population and will be there to help the new queen when she returns from getting mated.

If you have the luxury of choosing a frame of eggs on relatively new fresh comb the bees will find it easier to draw queen cells. However, don’t worry if you don’t … if they’re queenless they’ll be thankful for anything.

Check the colony a few days after adding the frame of eggs. If they’ve started queen cells 11 then I just let them get on with it and check again in about a month or so for a laying queen. They won’t swarm or generate casts as – by this time – bee numbers are significantly depleted. 

However, if they don’t start queen cells it means there’s a queen somewhere in the hive. Check the other frames in the hive for eggs. It’s not at all unusual to find the original queen has now started laying. Again, leave her to get on with it.

But if there are no eggs on other frames and no queen cells (on the frame you added) you need to find the non-functioning queen … and we’ll deal with that sometime in the future 😉

Good luck


Colophon

The usual dictionary definition of queenright just references a colony of bees that contains a queen. The OED has references going back to 1911 (When a colony is found that is not queen-right, it is remorselessly broken up, and distributed among other colonies, or united with a weak colony having a good queen, C.C. Miller in Fifty Years among Bees) including some from Wedmore and E.O Wilson.  

However, none specifically state whether the queen is laying. Or what she’s laying. A queenless colony is easy to define. But what about a colony containing a virgin queen? Or a drone laying queen? 

I’d argue that in these situations the colony contains a queen, but things aren’t really ‘right’ (as in correct). In my view, queenright means a mated, laying queen. 

Please, no pedantic questions or comments about a colony containing a well mated queen that, because there’s a nectar dearth, has stopped laying … 😉

Footnotes

  1. My definition of swarm control here includes anything that leaves the colony without a queen …
  2. For example, see Jay Evans’ paper Evans JD & Wheeler DE. Differential gene expression between developing queens and workers in the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 ; 96:5575‐5580 or, more recently, Yin et al., (2018) Uncovering the Changing Gene Expression Profile of Honeybee (Apis mellifera) Worker Larvae Transplanted to Queen Cells. Frontiers in Genetics https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2018.00416.
  3. Like workers, queens go on orientation flights before leaving the hive on a mating flight. If spooked into flight (by a clumsy inspection) before she knows where the hive is you might lose her.
  4. Obviously there’s no need to inspect the colony when it’s requeening. Check the supers aren’t full but leave the brood box alone.
  5. There seems to be a direct relationship between hive size and the speed with which a queen gets mated. Mini-nucs are very fast, 5 frame nucs next and full-sized colonies the slowest of all, at least in my experience.
  6. It’s easier to find a queen at this stage because a) she has settled down and is calmly walking about on the frames and b) there are fewer bees in the hive – the older bees have been dying off and the new brood from the new queen has yet to emerge. Of course, if she’s not laying worker brood your problems have only just started …
  7. i.e. four weeks since the queen emerged.
  8. The longer you leave things the worse the situation gets.
  9. Presumably purchased – or a gift. If you actively rear your own queens you would have probably saved all this faffing around by plonking a new queen into the hive a month ago … a compelling reason to rear your own queens.
  10. Which deserves a full post.
  11. You only need to check the frame you added for queen cells.

16 thoughts on “Queenright … or not?

  1. Paul Lindstrom

    Interesting as always – I’m in this waiting phase at the moment. One capped queen cell in each of my two hives. What I will do, is to spend time at the hives when I have calculated that the princesses might appear for their mating flights. Last Summer I noticed that the colony with the queen cell had a group of about 50 bees frantically fanning with their bottoms up in the air. My guess was that they knew that their new queen was out on her mating flight, and wanted to help her find her way back to the hive. Amazing, if that was the case (the other two colonies didn’t show this behaviour, and it wasn’t a particularly warm day, so I don’t think it was fanning to cool down the hive). A week from now, approx. and I’ll know if we have new queens in the two hives. Fingers crossed.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Paul

      Good idea (just don’t get in her flight path!). I’ve seen queens returning a few times and it’s a great sight. Have fun (looks like good weather for the week ahead).

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    2. Jane

      Paul’s comment has got me worried now! I’m also in the waiting phase but a couple of days ago there were lots of bees fanning on the front and landing board, and many more bees than normal in the air. Since it was very hot and I’d got the entrance reduced to prevent robbing from the stronger hive close by, I thought they were overheating. I therefore spent some time messing around trying to flip the entrance block round, when I first couldn’t get it out and then couldn’t get it back in. Now I’m thinking I might have been ruining things for them by standing in the way while the new queen was trying to get back.
      I’ll finish my waiting period as marked on the calendar, but if the queen cell is open and there’s no queen there, I’ll have a sad explanation for what went wrong.

      Thanks David for another useful post.

      Reply
      1. David Post author

        Hello Jane

        You did check the back of your beesuit hood for the queen before folding it away … didn’t you?!

        These things usually end OK. I’ve had lots of D’oh! moments – dropping queens in long grass when trying to mark them, queens getting balled when reintroducing them carelessly, virgin queens flying off etc. – those that haven’t ended well have been useful learning experiences 😉

        But mostly they’ve ended OK 🙂

        David

        Reply
  2. Ihor Pona

    What do you do you do with the many, many capped drone cells in the hive? Cut out these cells, but leave the honey band intact, shake off the drone far enough away so that the do noot know how to return to the hive? Two hives, same condition. Please assist.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Ihor

      Why so many drones? Assuming it’s not a drone laying queen or laying workers then I’d probably leave them. They should not be a problem for a strong hive. If it’s either a missing queen or a failed one the hives will not survive without urgent attention. Do you have a mentor? Ask your local BKA for some advice. It’s not possible to meaningfully diagnose problems over the internet 🙁

      Hope things work out
      David

      Reply
      1. vince poulin

        Ihor and David – this is a great question. What to do with all the drones? David – I’m learning eliminating “swarm impulse” is not easy and have included removing capped drone cells to help meet that objective. Need-less-to-say, not all efforts have been successful. So far 2-swarms from a strong, productive 2019 NUC. I restored that hive by re-queening using a new 2020 queen and her NUC bees. The hive did not miss a beat and is doing well. A second hive earlier in the season developed queen cells but did not swarm. In that case, I caught it before the queen left. Actions taken were the removal of queen cells I could find and removal of frames with bees – to reduce the hive population and create space. I also carefully cut out large segments of capped drone comb with the idea of creating even more space within the hive. That hive did not swarm and remains a very productive hive with its original 2019 queen. Situation 3! Two days ago after returning from a 10-day trip I checked all hives and found another of my 2019 hive with no queen and the hive filled with capped queen cells. Many simply beautiful cells. The hive remains filled with bees, eggs, larvae and capped brood. Hours later, drinking tea I heard that familiar buzz – that swarm lifted off and out of a large tree. It took off over the house leaving the scene of the abandonment. I had worked with that hive to reduce swarm impulse but was limited in what I could do. I removed the equivalent of 2-full Lang frames of cells (a 10-frame deep lang hive). I had given it a medium to super. This was topped by a QE and then 2-additional med supers. My reason for removing capped drone cells was the same as I had done in the other hives: 1. create space and additionally, 2. be pro-active with mite mitigation. When removing capped drone cells I did not cut-away the comb fully. I carefully cut 1/2 cell height then scrapped away the remaining cell walls leaving the wax foundation. When done previously the bees quickly restored the cells. Some being laid up again and other parts used for honey storage. As a method for creating space to help reduce swarm impulse – it seems not to have worked all that well, but it may have helped in one situation. Despite that – I’m hoping it will help as an integrated pest management practice.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Vince

          I think the current view is that removal of drone brood is relatively ineffective as reducing mite levels in mid-season. It’s also worth remembering that drones are very valuable if the bees have good genes … they help spread those genes to other colonies in the area. I tend to only remove large amounts of drone brood when I’m not happy with the quality of the bees, though I will cut out drone comb built in foundationless frames in the hope that they draw more worker brood cells in its place.

          There’s an exception to my comment above about drone brood … Wally Shaw has told me that the first drone brood reared each season is a “mite magnet” and is definitely worth cutting out to get rid of the mites.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  3. Sarah

    Thank you very much for your helpful post. This is my first season as a beekeeper ( in at the deep end). I bought an old swarm in late August last year. I managed to get them through the winter, then found a sealed Queen cell in April 😳. I did a split and then when I checked my split the old lady had gone and I had more Queen cells. So all of this beautiful May I have had 2 hives and nothing to do. It’s a mighty loooong wait 🥱 your posts have been an enormous help – Queen cells, Queen right and now this. Thank you 😊

    Reply
  4. Luke

    Very informative – I’ve just come out of the waiting side myself and found a new queen in a split hive today that I think has just started laying based on what I could see. I may have been a bit enthusiastic in catching and marking her at such an early point but I’ve got high hopes!

    Reply
      1. Luke

        Turns out my hopes were slightly too high – turned up to inspect today and spotted a blue-marked corpse on the landing board 🙁 Not sure what went wrong there, there was a frame of capped brood and a charged queen cell so she was laying, and she happily walked into a seam of bees after being marked.

        *sigh*

        We’ll see how their next attempt goes, bolstered with some eggs and brood from another hive. Otherwise, it’s time to break the newspaper out!

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Oh dear …

          Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the bees seem hell-bent on doing something just plain stupid 🙁

          To us it seems stupid, but they were probably responding to a evolutionarily acquired set of signals that indicated the queen was sub-standard and that – more than likely – the colony was better of sacrificing her now rather then trying to replace her late in the season. Of course, they didn’t do all that reasoning 😉

          It’s all in the genes.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  5. Al Alexander

    Apologies, but this is slightly off topic. In mitigation, I’ve just read a post about various types of queen excluder, and discovered it was closed to comments. What I wanted to say was….

    Have you tried bamboo QEs? My very first hive was purchased from Caddon Hives, and they supplied my starter hive with just such a thing. I’ve since purchased two additional hives from other suppliers, and each hive came with the wooden framed wired QEs you speak of. Five years on and the bamboo QE is by far and away the easiest to live with. Best of all, they are cheap. Google “Caddon Hives bamboo” to find out more.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Al

      Only just got to this … I’ve not seen bamboo excluders, though knew they existed. Given the choice I’d standardise on framed wire ones, but that’s only because it’s the type I like the most of the types I’ve got.

      I checked your IP address isn’t registered to “Caddon hives” 😉 and took the liberty of editing your comment with a link to their queen excluders.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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