Re-Queening: Why and When to Replace my Queens?

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Every beekeeper will eventually find that they are faced with the decision of whether or not to re-queen.  Many beekeepers choose to do this pro-actively, while others might find themselves in a situation where they must re-queen a colony or be otherwise forced to merge it with a one that is queenright. We wanted to post this article before going any further into the season as August is generally the last month you want to consider re-queening pro-actively. The addition of new queens in September is usually only done in an emergency and with a much lower rate of successful introduction and overwintering. Typically the queens you have in your colonies by the end of August are the ones you are counting on to survive and thrive through the Spring build-up.

There are a number of reasons why you might need or want to replace your queen. Perhaps your queen has died or is failing; the colony attempted to supercede but failed to generate a well mated queen; there is a disease such as chalkbrood within the hive; or maybe your colony is just highly defensive and unpleasant to work with. All of these reasons are reactive reasons to re-queen; that is, the choice to re-queen is due to demonstrable behaviour and circumstances in the hive. There is also a pro-active reason to requeen which is to ensure you have a young more recently mated queen in the hive for overwintering. In this case the choice to re-queen is not based on the particular performance of a queen, but as a pre-caution against unexpected failure during critical parts of the year.

Below we discuss in more detail these reactive and proactive reasons for re-queening. We hope it helps you assess the status of your queens and informs your decision on whether or not to re-queen while there is still time in the season.

Signs you will need to requeen (Reactively):

1.

No eggs – If you are not able to see any eggs it is likely that your hive is no longer queen-right. With no queen present your population will dwindle and eventually disappear. The amount of time that your colony can tolerate being without a queen will depend on the strength of the hive. One way to determine the length of time that the queen has been absent is to examine the brood. A developing bee will spend three days as an egg. If no eggs are present it means your hive has been queenless for at least three days. If there are no uncapped larvae present your hive has been queenless for at least 8 days. The longer a hive is left queenless the more difficult is will be to introduce a new queen and for the hive to rebound.

Having said all that, keep in mind that if you have not been able to inspect a colony for a while (3+ weeks) and you find a colony with no brood at all, or just a very small amount of capped brood, that does not always indicate you are queenless. If you have had a swarm or a supercedure already occur in the time since you last inspected it may be a new queen has simply not started laying. If you are in this situation and are having difficulty determining if you are actually queenless or if there is just a young queen that has not started mating yet consider reaching out to a bee mentor of beekeeping club for help, or following up with us for some tips!

2.

A large number of drone cells – A drone is the result of an unfertilized egg. A large number of drone cells is usually the result of either a poorly mated queen, a failing queen or a laying worker (more details in point 5). In the case of a poorly mated or failing queen the answer is typically to re-queen. In the case of the laying worker you typically DO NOT want to attempt re-queening as success is very unlikely – more details below.

3.

Multiple eggs in each cell – This is one of the tell tale signs of laying workers. A laying worker will often lay their eggs on top of one another, along the walls of the cells or even in pollen-filled cells. Laying workers occur when a hive has been without a queen for some time, typically over a month. As laying workers are only able to produce drones it is not possible for them to raise their own queen and the colony will inevitably dwindle away. Re-queening a colony that has laying workers is not recommended and is almost certainly going to be unsuccessful. Instead consider if you have the option to instead combine a laying worker colony with another queenright hive, or shaking the bees out in front of another colony. If you do not have these options you can also consider introducing a queenright nuc into the failing colony. This is a great video of Paul Kelley discussing laying workers, produced by the University of Guelph Honeybee Research Centre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycKdlYzrcOE.

PLEASE NOTE: if you see multiple eggs in some cells but they are at the bottom rather than around the sides this can sometimes indicate you are queenright but the queen is young and just beginning to lay (or laying again after a period of stopping). Inspect and monitor carefully and check for signs that the brood is otherwise normal and/or colony behaving as though queenright, in which case this may be what is happening.

4.

Cranky bees – If you have found a sudden change in the behaviour of your hive this could be a sign that you no longer have a queen. A queenless hive will become unsettled and defensive. You may notice a change in the pitch of the hive as well, this sound is often referred to as ‘roaring’. Instead of the usual gentle hum of a happy hive you will hear a continuous loud ‘venting’ buzz.

On the other hand if your hive has always been defensive it can be the result of genetics (though not always, other factors may be relevant such as mite load or environmental stressors). While this situation does not require you to re-queen it may be very desirable. The introduction of a new queen breed for gentleness will introduce new genetics and reduce the sensitivity of the hive. Remember that it will take a few weeks to see this effect as the older population diminishes and the queen produces the next generation of gentler bees.

5.

Spotty Brood Pattern – A spotty brood pattern can be an indication of a few things: a poorly mated or failing queen, a queen with poor health or genetics/development, or brood disease. In all cases a new queen can often benefit your colony. If you happen to be facing a brood disease such as chalkbrood a new queen from a hygienic genetic stock will not only produce healthier and stronger bees, but will also provide the hive with a break in the brood cycle and allow the colony to clear infected cells. (Please note however that re-queening will not be an appropriate option in the case of American Foulbrood, which requires more direct destruction and treatment options.)

Benefits of re-queening proactively:

Many beekeepers choose to re-queen each year or every other year. Queens can often live for 3-5 years but many factors can impact their life span and productivity. Generally beekeepers choose to re-queen proactively to avoid hard-to-anticipate queen failure during critical times of the year, such as late Winter and early Spring brooding.

Typically a queen’s lifespan is determined by her amount of viable sperm stores. Queens only mate once in their life and the sperm they gather from their matings with multiple drones is all they will have available to them for their entire life, which is stored inside a special receptable called the spermatheca. When she does run out of viable sperm, or otherwise struggles to utilize it to successfully fertilize eggs, she begins to fail and a colony will then usually attempt to replace and ultimately kill her.

There are many factors that can seriously impact a queen’s sperm stores/sperm viability and consequently her lifespan. These factors include:

  • How much laying she does (and therefore how much sperm she uses).
  • How many drones she initially mated with and the quality of the drone semen (which in turn can be greatly influenced by weather, time of year, and other variables related to time available to fly and drone rearing.)
  • Temperature stressors that reduce the viability of the sperm she has stored (this is in particular a well demonstrated potential issue with bees transported via air freight).
  • Other potential stressors such as nutrition, pesticide exposure, etc.

If you have a queen that has been active for 2 or more years already, and/or was imported or transported at a long distance, and/or was reared during a poorer time of year for flying and/or drone availability, you may want to consider re-queening proactively before the Fall.

Of course there are always potential downsides even to best practices. The major downsides of re-queening are twofold:

  1. You must remove (read: kill) the old queen in order to purposefully make the colony queenless and receptive to a new queen. Many newer and hobby beekeepers find this difficult to do both practically and emotionally. From a practical standpoint it can be difficult to find a queen if they are not marked, and sometimes even difficult to catch them from in amongst the workers. On the emotional side it can be devastating and counter-intuitive for some beekeepers to pinch the queen that has been so precious to them up until that point.
  2. Successful re-queening is not guaranteed and if you do not have many other hives which can be used for merges or donating brood the consequences could be severe. There are, however, ways to increase the chance of success. See the below section ‘How to Re-queen’ for a video on the re-queening process and various tips for successful queen introduction.

Despite these drawbacks, from a statistical standpoint the outcome for apiaries is best if they practice some form of proactive re-queening as this provides the best chance for long-term colony health and survival. In building up resolve for the replacement of a queen a beekeeper should keep in mind the general health of the colony is the priority, and also consider as well the honeybees’ own general ethos of sacrifice for the greater good.

Queens for re-queening:

When you re-queen, especially as late in the season as August, the ideal option for re-queening a colony is typically to purchase (or already have produced for yourself) a young, mated, locally-raised queen. This queen will still have most of her sperm stores from mating, has been exposed to minimal or no major stressors throughout the season, and will not have travelled very far or long to get to her new colony.

August is not generally a good time to start rearing a new queen, but it can certainly be a good option earlier in the year. You can prompt a colony to raise their own queens by removing the old/failing queen and then letting them raise a new one from their own eggs (or from eggs on a frame moved over from another colony). If you have available an already capped queen cell you can also move that over into a recently queenless hive to accelerate the replacement process (skipping the time spent raising a queen through its larval stage).

How to Re-Queen:

Decided to re-queen? Check out this great video on re-queening. Once again taken of Paul Kelley and produced by the University of Guelph Honeybee Research Centre:

Some tips for re-queening in August:
  • If you pinch a queen ideally you leave ~24 hours until introducing the new queen.
  • Introduce the queen into the center of the cluster, ideally onto a frame with brood. While it is not always an option, it is best to introduce the queen onto a frame with open brood. Frames with open brood are tended by nurse bees which are much more receptive and likely to immediately tend to foreign queens.
  • Feed sugar syrup and pollen patty during the queen introduction. Consider adding to the syrup a supplement which contains essential oils (e.g. Hive Alive).
  • Spray or dribble some light syrup (also great with supplement) on the frames of bees prior to queen introduction.
  • Lightly coat the outside of the queen cage with syrup when introducing to encourage bees to eat off of the cage and in turn spread the new queen’s pheromone.
  • When introducing a queen do not do an extensive inspection of the colony. You want the colony to be as undisturbed and non-defensive as possible during introduction. If you notice that the colony is acting particularly defensive, such as stringing your suit or gloves, you may want to re-consider proceeding with the introduction and find another time..
  • If the colony shows signs of not being receptive to a queen (more likely the case with a colony noted for being defensive) consider providing her some more time to be introduced by taping her candy plug shut. You can then return a few days later to quickly remove the tape while minimizing the colony as little as possible. This will have bought the queen a few more days for the receiving colony to adjust to her before chewing through the candy plug.
  • Do not introduce a queen into a colony receiving a temperature based fumigating mite treatment such as formic or thymol, or which will receive it immediately after introduction. Consider how to time your treatment either before introduction or after acceptance, or consider another treatment option.

Do you have any more questions regarding this article or other topics?

Please feel free to reach out to us on our community Facebook page, or via email form. If you think you may be having a queen issue consider taking some high-quality photos from your hive and sending them to us along with a description of your issue, and we’d be happy to try to provide some further tips and suggestions!

Thank you for reading,

 – Urban Bee Supplies Team