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The queen bee is the mother of all the members of the colony. It is her genetics and those of the fertilized eggs she lays, that determines many characteristics of the colony. But, even the best queen does not live forever. As a beekeeper, there will come a time when you find yourself needing a new queen and she comes safely inside a special cage. If you are not able to place her in the colony right away, what can you do? You need to know how to take care of a caged queen bee.
Deciding if and when you need to requeen your hive, is an important part of beehive management. Often, the bees take care of that themselves – but you may want to step in on occasion. And, sometimes it takes a few days to get everything done.
What is a Queen Cage?
The queen cage is traditionally a tiny box of wood and wire. Similar in size to a small box of matches. But, plastic queen cages are becoming more common.
No matter the material, the purpose of a queen cage is to keep her safe. In this separate container, she can be seen and smelled, but is somewhat protected.
Your new queen is going into a colony that does not recognize her as THEIR queen. In most cases, just turning her loose in the hive will result in the hive bees killing the queen in most cases.
Bees recognize their queen through pheromones – they need time to adjust and accept her “scent”.
Use of a queen cage allows the colony limited access to those inside. Worker bees in the new colony can see and most importantly smell her. They will even insert their proboscis into the cage to feed those inside.
A white candy plug in one end is slowly eaten away over the next 3-7 days. During this time the colony bees become accustomed to the pheromones of the new queen. They are very likely to accept her by the time the candy plug is gone.
Why Would a Queen Bee be Caged?
There are several reasons you may be dealing with a queen in a special cage. The most common are:
- Package bees
- Introducing new genetics
- Replacing a failing or queenless hive
- Making a Hive split
If you buy package bees, the majority of the bees including workers and drones are loose in the package. The queen travels in a small individual queen cage with a few attendants because she did not come from the same hive.
Hanging by a strap near the syrup can, her cage is removed and placed into the hive when you are installing your package of bees.
There will be times when genetic diversity is the reason for giving a hive a new egg layers. Requeening is the goal of beekeepers wanting to introduce new genetics into their bee yards.
Buying a new queen is fairly easy during the Spring season. They can be ordered from different bee suppliers and provide more genetic diversity in your colonies. This may promote healthier bees overall.
Even though a queen lives a long time compared to the other members of the colony, any queen will eventually fail.
Whether she runs out of stored semen, eggs, pheromones or simply succumbs to disease, the colony unable to replace her is queenless.
Depending on the time of year, availability and status of the colony population, the beekeeper could decide to order a mated queen for this colony.
The same situation applies to the beekeeper making hive splits. The part of the split without a queen may be allowed to make their own or the beekeeper may provide a mated queen for them.
Attendants in the Queen Cage
In most instances, the queen cage will contain a few worker bees. Why? Surely things are crowded enough in there with that big girl.
Well, bees are social insects that do not live alone. It is natural for the queen to have helpers – called attendants, to take care of her.
Having a few workers from the colony she came out of to feed and groom her is a good thing.
What if the attendants are dead! Yes, that does happen and it is no cause for alarm. Bees die every day and there is no way of knowing how old those attendants are.
Having a one or two dead bees in the cage does not mean your queen is damaged. If she is active and moving around, she is likely just fine.
What should you do with dead bees in the queen cage? First, ensure that it is an attendant that is dead and not the queen.
Then, if only 1 bee is dead you may choose to just leave things be. I know that is morbid from a human point of view but the bees seem to pay it little attention.
Personally, if I have a dead attendant it sets off all my OCD tendencies and I try to get her out. I hold the cage with the cork only end down (hoping the queen and others crawl up to the other end).
Removing that cork (and using my finger to plug it when needed), I use tweezers or a toothpick to try to get the dead bee out. But, this is not something you have to do and be careful or you may hurt your queen.
If all the attendants are dead (more than 2), I try to remove the dead bees if possible before introducing her to the hive.
Keeping the Queen in the Cage
Receiving a new queen is an exciting time full of promise. Hopefully, this will be a good one and help your colony grow and be productive. It is your goal to protect her until she can be placed in the hive.
Things happen and due to weather conditions or work schedules, you may be required to hold her for a day or so. This is okay but don’t delay any longer than necessary.
The only natural place for her is loose in the colony. The sooner she is reunited into a colony – the better for everyone.
But, this introduction should not be rushed. An important factor of beekeeping is respecting how the colony works.
Where to Keep the Queen Cage Until Installation
You have a new queen bee but can not install her into the hive for a few days. That’s okay, a mated queen can survive in a cage for a week or more.
Place the cage in a warm, dark, draft free place. In the past, I placed my caged queens under a tented greeting card up on the bookshelf.
Then my cat became too interested in the attractive buzzing sound – I had to find a new place.
Twice a day, put 1 drop of water on the screen (or slotted if plastic) side of the cage. Only 1 tiny drop, we are not watering a cow here. Too much water will make a mess and may chill your bees.
Larger scale beekeepers participate in a practice called banking queens. Many caged queens are kept inside a queenless hive until needed.
The members of the colony feeds and cares for each queen until she is needed. Her cage and attendants offer some protection.
The purpose of a queen cage is to protect a new queen until the colony has time to accept her. It offers some protection from what would usually be a quick death.
The industry standard for queens to remain caged is a week to 10 days but their quality begins to suffer if held in this unnatural state for too long.
Yes, the workers in a hive will feed the attendants and the queen locked inside a cage.
I love getting new queen bees for my hives (though I don’t love paying for them). They represent all kinds of possibilities.
Will she produce calm bees that are easy to work? Or maybe they will become a very productive work force?
Even better perhaps the colony will have the genetics to be very healthy and productive too. In either case, taking care of the caged queen is important. Strive to keep her comfortable until she is able to join her new family.