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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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.