How to Find Your Queen Bee

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Finding the Queen Bee in a Hive

Learning how to find the queen bee is one of the most frustrating lessons for the new beekeeper. Having a quality honey bee queen in residence is vital to colony success. And yes, sometimes the beekeeper needs to find the queen to perform various hive management tasks. Can you find yours ? Well, if you can not – you are not alone but you can get better at it!

picture of a queen bee in the brood nest of the hive

It is not only new beekeepers who struggle to find a queen bee. Heck, we old beekeepers even have a hard time sometimes.

In a hive of 30-60 thousand bees, it can be rather hard to find 1 bee. One very special bee that is just a bit different looking from the other – 59,999.

However, there will be times that you need to locate your queen in the hive. This is a good skill to develop as part of your beekeeper training.

If your eye sight is not what it used to be, invest in a large magnifying glass. I keep one in my beekeeper’s tool box.

Don’t laugh. If you have not reached the point where a big magnifying glass comes in handy, you will!

To prevent it from getting scratched in among my tools – I keep it in one of my husbands old socks. Shhhh…. he doesn’t know.

picture of large queen bees how to find

You Don’t Need to See the Queen Every Inspection

Learning how to find the queen bee in a large hive can be a struggle. It may take more than one effort. Sometimes, we need to close the hive up and come back another day.

Once you master the skill of locating a queen (most of the time), hive management issues are easier. Your confidence is boosted and sometimes just having confidence that you can do it – helps you to be successful.

Thankfully, we don’t always have to locate our queen. Sometimes, we can look for signs of a laying queen.

Signs of a laying queen in the hive includes seeing fresh eggs (only 1 per cell) and new patterns of young bee brood – if that looks good perhaps you don’t have to find her.

What Does a Queen Bee Look Like?

You can not get better at finding the queen bee if you don’t know what she looks like !

She looks similar to the bees in some aspects, both the queen bee and workers are female. And some workers can look quite large.

Once the queen fills out and begins to lay eggs – finding her will be easier.

Identify the Queen Honey Bee

A couple of special characteristics help distinguish her as the queen.

  • slightly larger thorax (mid section)
  • long tapered abdomen
picture of queen honey bee on comb in the hive - thorax and abdomen labeled

The large abdomen of a mating laying queen bee is her most outstanding feature. Inside, is a special organ called the “spermatheca” that holds drone sperm.  

This long abdomen also features developed ovaries that hold a lifetime’s worth of eggs. Her long tail enables her to reach deep down in the honeycomb cell to lay an egg in the bottom.

In general, good queens tend to be larger but you can not really use the size of the queen bee to evaluate her quality. Bigger isn’t always better.

Mistaking Drones for the Queen

In my online beekeeping class, beginning beekeepers learn that a queen bee is larger than a worker bee.

Then it happens- you see a bigger bee!  She is a beauty and big!  Wait a minute.  There is another one.  

picture of large drone honey bee on a blade of green grass

Wow.  And, I see another and another.  This can’t be right!  No, it is not right – you have not found your queen bee.

You have found a drone bee (male). They have rounded bodies with huge black eyes on the heads.  Oh well, that’s okay – now you know what a drone bee looks like.

Tips for How to Spot a Queen Bee

Some beekeeper skills require hands on practice that only time can give.  Quickly locating a queen bee on a frame full of bees is one of those skills that develop. 

And, yes – even after years of learning she will sometimes be difficult to locate. But, here are some tips that should make finding your queen a bit easier.

  • mark your queens
  • check the brood nest first
  • develop a hive inspection procedure
  • remove a couple of frames to make room
  • look for a large bee surrounded by workers
  • watch for the slow waggle walk of a queen

Marked Queens are Easier to Find

When you buy honey bees, pay extra for a marked queen or mark her yourself.  Marked queens are easier to find.

However, you will eventually have an unmarked queen.  This may be because your supplier did not mark her or the colony requeened itself without your permission – how rude!

Marking your own queen is not that difficult. Beekeepers use a variety of things – the most important issue is to be sure that you only mark her “thorax” and don’t get paint on her eyes, wings, etc.

New beekeeper 5 pcs queen bee marking pen set blue red yellow white green poscaNew beekeeper 5 pcs queen bee marking pen set blue red yellow white green poscaNew beekeeper 5 pcs queen bee marking pen set blue red yellow white green posca

 

I like to use this type of marking pen. Why? Because that it is the favorite brand used by many beekeepers.

And, it has been in use for years with no adverse reactions. If I keep my pens tightly capped when not in use – they last for years!

Of course, you can use any queen marking color that you wish – or you can use the International queen bee marking colors.

International Queen Colors

Years ending in:

  • 1 or 6 – White
  • 2 or 7 – Yellow
  • 3 or 8 – Red
  • 4 or 9 – Green
  • 5 or 0 – Blue

Check the Brood Nest for Evidence of a Queen

Sometimes you need to find the queen in a hurry. Where is the queen bee most likely to be?

The duty of a honey bee queen is to lay eggs. Egg laying normally begins in one central area of the hive and expands outward.

picture of a large queen honey bee on a frame of comb.

Find the brood nest, the area inside a honey bee colony that holds eggs, larvae and capped brood.

Locate frames that have eggs or larva (milk brood).  This is the youngest part of the brood nest and most likely place for the queen to be.

But the queen could be anywhere-so be careful when manipulating any hive parts.  Sometimes, she is where I least expect her.

Develop a Hive Inspection Procedure

Every beekeeper has their own procedure to follow for hive inspections. This is mine.

Use a bee smoker with cool, white smoke to disrupt the alarm pheromones of the colony.

Lightly smoke the hive entrance. Learning how to properly use your bee smoker is important – don’t over smoke.

After waiting a few minutes, lift off the telescoping top. Using a hive tool, pry the inner cover off and lay it aside.

Any super boxes on the hive are removed in the same way and set aside. A few puffs of smoke here and there makes the job easier.

Hive inspections are much easier without angry bees bouncing off your veil. Take your time – use a little smoke and get the job done.

The first goal is to inspect the deep brood box (the one on the bottom) where the queen is most likely to be. But, your brood nest may be higher up in the hive stack.

If you do not find her in the bottom box, look in the next box higher in the stack and so on.

Removing Frames During Hive Inspection

Now, it’s time to put the hook hive tool to work. Seriously, I think I have 5 or 6 of these – they make beekeeping so much easier on days that my hands hurt.

J Hook Bee Hive Tool Frame LifterJ Hook Bee Hive Tool Frame LifterJ Hook Bee Hive Tool Frame Lifter

 

Using the hook hive tool (or any you have), remove the frame in the #2 position. This is the second frame from the left (my left standing behind the hive.)

I am removing the second frame from the left (my left when standing behind the hive.)

picture of a 10 frame langstroth hive with numbered frames

By removing a frame near the outside, there is less chance of the queen being there. Bees tend to have the majority of brood in the middle of the hive.

Try to lift the frame straight up and not rub against adjacent frames-if possible. You do not want to “roll” your queen and kill her.

We never know for sure where the queen will be and she could be on the first frame that you remove.

A frame perch or frame holder  is a great tool to hold frames out of the way while you work. Every beekeeper really does need one – they pay for themselves in less aggravation.

Look at the frame you just removed (yes, even the first one) the queen could be anywhere.  If you do not see her, place the frame on your frame perch.

You now have more room to work inside the hive without squeezing bees. You can remove the next frame moving towards the center of the hive.

Once you find a frame that has small larva or eggs, you should begin a serious search. Inspect the center of the frame and work outwards.

After the second frame is inspected and you do not find the queen, place it back in the hive. Some extra room is available because you have one frame removed on the frame perch.

Lift each frame with care and hold it over the hive to inspect. If the queen falls off the frame it would fall into the hive and not on the ground. 

Placing Queen Back in the Hive

Success, you have found her. Good job! Now, carefully put that frame back in the hive. And then, replace the other frames and push all the frames snugly together.

image of free secrets of beekeeping book

Queen Bees Walk Funny

A laying honey bee queen has a certain way of walking. Her large abdomen waggles across the frame of honeycomb. 

As the years go by, I get better at being able to find her quickly. You too will improve as you see more and more queens in the hive.

Eventually your eyes and mind will put together the correct clues to enable you to say – “There she is – I found the queen!”

What if You Can Not Find Your Queen Bee?

If you did not find the queen what should you do? I have great news. You don’t always have to . Seriously you don’t. But I know you want to because I want to as well.

Most of the time, you only need to know that your hive is “queen right”.  A queen right hive has a healthy, mated queen laying a good brood pattern

picture of milk brood young bee larva in beeswax cells

A single egg in each cell attached to the bottom of the cell is normal. This information tells you that a queen has been on that frame  within the last 3 days.

Can You Find the Queen Bee-Practice

Enjoy this short practice – it is an older video but I think it still has merit.  You will see a picture of a mass of bees.  In a few seconds, an arrow will reveal the queen. 

Pause the video if you want a longer time to search for her. (Depending on your device – the video may be playing at the top of the screen) Just Pause it .

Many  new beekeepers are full of excitement during early hive inspections and overwhelmed. Looking at “your bees” is the best part of the day.

There are so many important things to remember. You think you are ready for anything.

Off comes the hive top and you see thousands of wiggling bees.  Oh my goodness!  What was I supposed to look for ?  LOL

Honestly, your expertise in finding the queen bee in the hive will get better with time.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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14 Comments

  1. CHET CALHOUN says:

    you mention removing frame #2 to the perch. I remove #1 and was wondering if there is an advantage doing it your way?

  2. Over the years, I have found that sometimes a queen will hide between the wall of the hive and #1 frame. I am afraid I will squish her. But she can be anywhere, right ! Just personal preference really.

  3. Karren Barr says:

    Thank you Charlotte, my high school students and I have been using your bog to practice finding our queens in our school hives. Very helpful information.

  4. John Proctor says:

    Thank you for the article!! I know this is an older article, but still valuable. I did not see my queen today I got nervous and came straight to the internet. I am confident things are going smoothly, I had a bee keeper stop by my house earlier this year when I saw a llot of bees hanging on the outside of my hive. He then instructed me to get a second deep brood box with some frames before they swarm. So I did. That was back in May. Now the colony has about 50k bees in it and looks MUCH happier. However, first, I wasnlt looking to harvest any honey, I wanted them to build their stors for the long winters we have here in South East Pennsylvania. He told me they will need about 70 lbs of honey. Long story short, after today’s inspection, I saw only 2 areas of honey in the entire colony and each spot of honey was 2 softballs in size, and only on one side of each frame. Should I be concerned that there isn’t any honey stored for them? I am so scared they will starve this winter. We are about 2 months away from being frost at night. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  5. I would be very concerned. Unless you have a heavy fall flow, your bees could starve.

  6. Jim McCormac says:

    Love the queen spotting pics. I getting more and more confident before attempting the real test. Thanks

  7. In the article above, near the end, there is a section that says “Can you find the queen?” And it says practice with a video which will have an arrow to point out the queen after a few minutes. I cannot find the video. Has it been removed? I would love to practice with it. I can NEVER find our queens!

  8. Hi Ann, Thanks for letting me know – I “think” I fixed it. The video works like a slide show so hit the pause button to give yourself more time to look on each frame.

  9. I still don’t see the practice video. Am I missing something?

  10. Thanks for letting me know Jim. I have had some problems with that video. If you will refresh your browser and try again – it should work. Use the pause button to stop the video and give you time to search for her.

  11. Charlotte
    I just opened my hive the first time after installing the bees 6 days ago.
    The queen cage was open and empty, I started as you recommended in your article above, but could not find the queen at all. She should be marked and I hope she hasn’t left the hive.
    The bees did build comb bet ween the gap of the queen cage, but I could not identify any larvae. Should I be concerned the hive is already queenless and how long should I wait until checking again?

    Thanks
    Joerg

  12. No don’t worry yet. It takes her a few days to get out and then maybe a few days to lay. I would look again in a week.

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