This post is intended to serve as a guide for those introducing new queens into their hives.
Can you spot the queen?
Do you need a new queen?
There are times when beekeepers choose to replace their queens, and there are times when they need to. Beekeepers may choose to replace an existing queen due to her poor performance or the behavioural traits of the colony. Generally a younger queen will be more productive than an old queen, hence why a lot of commercial beekeepers replace their queens each year. Replacing a queen can have a positive influence on the behaviour of bees within the hive, particularly in terms of the aggressiveness and hygiene traits of a hive. It is often good practice to replace the queens of wild captured swarms, as these queens are usually old and their colony will have unknown behavioural traits.
On the other hand, sometimes beekeepers will be forced to replace a queen. This could be due to her having been killed accidentally, stopped laying or she may have left the hive entirely without the bees having raised a replacement themselves. Whatever your reason for re-queening, it is important that you do it systematically in order to ensure the new queen’s survival in what is initially a hostile environment for them.
Assess the hive condition
The state of a hive will determine how the bees will greet their new monarch. Hives with an existing queen that is laying will be more receptive to a mated queen, and less receptive to a virgin queen. On the other hand, a colony that has been queenless for some time should be receptive to either a virgin queen or mated queen. Bees communicate using pheromones and the presence or lack of existing queen pheromones, has a large determination over how the bees operate. All we can do is make an educated guess as to how they will interact with a new queen, based on knowledge acquired from past experiences with hives in similar circumstances.
Sometimes it doesn’t work
There are some instances where the introduction of a queen may not go so well. This can include the presence of a laying worker or a rogue virgin still in the hive. In these circumstances the queen you install may never be accepted and could be killed by the hive. It is critical that when a beekeeper seeks to re-queen their colony that they undertake a thorough assessment of the hive’s state.
Prepare the hive
A simple way to undertake this assessment and get the hive ready for a new queen, is to look for any eggs or fresh larvae in the cells. The presence of eggs means there has been a laying queen in the hive within the last 3 days, and you will need to find and remove her prior to installing the new royal. If you notice that there are several eggs in some cells, then you more than likely have a laying worker. This can be difficult to remedy, and further advice should be sought before re-queening. Also, you should look for any capped queen cells or recently uncapped queen cells within the hive. Any uncapped queen cells should be destroyed prior to re-queening, and you will need to search for and remove any virgin queens from the hive.
As stated above, re-queening is not always a successful process. Sometimes it just does not work out. We beekeepers still have lots to learn about bees and their intriguing dynasties. Occasionally they stray from the script and confuse us. That said, investing some time in thoroughly going through the hive prior to purchasing a queen, can prevent many of the frustrations and financial loss that occurs when a re-queening goes wrong.
Queen cage ready for installation with attendants and queen candy plug
First thing once you have received your queen bee, assess her health. So long as she has been transported appropriately, she should appear active within her cage. She will be the big fat one in there with a coloured dot on her thorax. If she is laying on her back, this is not good. If the cage is at a comfortable room temperature and she is standing still and not moving at all, this is not good either. Take the time to look her over. She should have all 6 of her legs, with particularly large hind legs, as well as a nice long abdomen. A healthy queen should be just casually walking around her cage. If this is not the case, contact the seller.
Grab the girl a drink
While you have the queen outside the hive, try keep her in a dark warm place. Avoid direct sunlight as much as possible to avoid her over heating. Keeping the queen hydrated is important too. A simple way to do this is to occasionally dip your fingers in some water and flick droplets onto the cage. Laying the cage down on its side on a shallow dish of water (2-3 mm deep) can achieve this well too.
Check the hive again
By now you should have already inspected the hive and are aware of the state of the hive. It can’t hurt to have one last quick look through the hive prior to installing the queen cage. Again, look for any signs of a current laying queen, virgin queens, or signs of a laying worker. All those things checked for, then continue with the installation.
Delay the release
From there, the basic concept that we are following is for the delayed release of the queen. We do not simply want to throw her in the hive and hope for the best. There are methods for doing this, but you’ve bought a queen in a purpose designed cage, so let’s embrace the technology and take advantage of the increased odds of success it provides us with. Check that the cage has a ‘plug’ of queen candy in the longish tube. This queen candy is what the bees inside the hive eat through to release the queen.
We find that it takes somewhere between 24 and 36 hours for the bees to eat through this queen candy and access the queen. Fortunately, this is also about as long as it takes for the queen to be accepted by the colony. In effect, if the bees may have first been opposed to the new queens scent, after the 24 hours or so, they come to accept her. This means that instead of killing her, they grow to accept her presence and begin to feed and care for her through the cage wires before finally releasing her.
As for placement of this cage, depending on your hive setup, you can either just place the queen cage on top of your frames where the bees can access the cage, or what we prefer to do, is to hang the cage between two brood frames. This is done by simply threading a piece of string through the end of the cage opposite the queen candy and hanging it from the top of frames. The string can be secured on top of the frames by pressing a thumb tack into the top of a timber frame and looping the string under this, or by hanging it from a small stick across the tops of two frames. Ideally the queen cage will hang halfway up a frame, but it really doesn’t matter a great deal. So long as the cage is somewhere that it will be kept warm, it will be fine. However you place the cage, just ensure that the candy (tube) end is facing down, in case the candy melts, you don’t want it smothering the queen.
Some beekeepers recommend that the candy is covered to further delay the release of the queen by 24 hours. You could do this by simply placing a piece of tape over the candy when you first put the cage in the hive. You would then return 24 hours later and remove this piece of tape to then start the delayed release. This has the advantage of giving the bees in the hive more time to accept the queen before being left to their own devices in releasing her. In our experience, we have not found this to be a necessary step. If you have the time and ready access to your hives that allows you to do this, then by all means do this. Entirely up to you.
If you do choose to take on this extra step, you may find it interesting to observe the bees response to the queen. When bees initially reject a queen, you will find that they point their abdomen at the cage and may appear to be trying to sting the queen. After the 24 hours though, and all going to plan, you should observe that the bees have their heads facing the queen in an attempt to feed her. This change in behaviour is a key sign that the bees have accepted her.
Let them do their thing
Regardless of whether you took the extra 24 hour approach or not, once the queen has been left in the hive with the cap off the queen candy (as in the delayed release clock has been started), then it is important that you do not open the hive for 7 days from that point. This gives the bees a week to settle. If the hive is opened prior to this week being up, then there is a risk that the stress of being opened up and smoked will cause the bees to ‘ball up’ and kill the queen.
Assess the outcome
If you purchased a mated queen, then after you’ve waited a week you’ll want to check for signs of fresh eggs in the hive. If everything has gone to plan then it will be the queen you installed the week prior and she’s busy repopulating the colony and building her dynasty. If no eggs are observed, then have a look for the queen herself. If she’s in the hive still and not laying after a week, then contact the seller. If there is no sign of the queen at all, then unfortunately the bees may have killed her. Often the corpse can be found on the floor of the hive, or on the ground in front of the hive. Check again for any sign of other queens, mated or virgin, within the hive. If there’s another queen in there then you could stick with that queen, or you’ll have to buy another queen and go about re-installing her.
For queens purchased as virgins, you may have to wait up to 2 weeks for the queen to commence laying. This is because she may take a week or so to head out on a mating flight, and then requires a few days to commence laying. There are more risks associated with buying virgin queens. They are cheaper for many reasons, primarily being the risks associated with them getting mated. When out on a mating flight they may get eaten by a bird, end up on someone’s windshield, or simply get lost and fail to return to the hive. After 2 weeks, if she isn’t present and laying, you will need a new queen. She either didn’t return, or was rejected by the hive. As said, virgin queens are cheaper because they are not as safe of a bet as mated queens. Most sellers will remind you of this if you are buying virgin queens off them, so don’t be too disappointed if you end up having to buy another one. Just note though, that the longer a hive is queenless the worse its situation becomes. Further interventions may be needed to get the hive ready to take on a new queen again, such as taking frames of open brood from a sister hive to prevent the onset of laying workers.
Protect the queen
Once you have a laying queen in the hive, it can pay to check for any queen cells. Sometimes the workers will build queen cells to immediately overthrow the new queen. Whatever the reason for this treason, it can be solved by simply destroying these queen cells. If there was an initial coup attempt, it would be prudent to check again a week later to make sure the crafty buggers don’t try to overthrow the queen again.
We hope you have found this guide useful to you in planning your queen installation.
The installation process covered here is suited to queens as supplied by us at the Perth Honey Company. The process we recommend to use is fairly universal, so most of the principles we suggest here should work fine for queens purchased from most suppliers. That said, we do not claim to be unquestionable experts so it is wise to consult your queen supplier prior to installation of their queens. After all, they are the ones that know their bees best, and we would hate to have the information we provided you with result in the failed installation of someone else’s queens. Hit them up, as any genuine seller should be more than happy to help you out.
While we are not specialised queen breeders, we do enjoy raising bees from our own stock. Subject to season and demand, we usually have some queens available for sale at competitive prices. You can find them for sale on our shop page or by following the links below:
Thanks for taking the time to read our article. We hope you got something useful from it. Good luck with any queen installations that you may undertake in the future, and all the best with your beekeeping!