Marking a Queen Bee-How and Why It’s Done

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Benefits of Marking a Queen Bee

A honey bee colony is home to thousands of individual bees. However, one member of the hive is especially important. Successful honey bee colonies require quality, healthy queen bees.  It is the job of the beekeeper to monitor hive conditions and queen status. By marking a queen bee the job of monitoring is much easier.

picture of a queen honey bee marked with a white dot

Why do Beekeepers Mark Queens?

As with all things related to beekeeping, you will find that beekeeper opinions on queen marking vary from one person to another.

Some experienced beekeepers choose to never mark queens. But most hobby or small-scale beekeeper enjoy the benefits of having a marked queen.  

A Marked Queen is Easier to Find

For new beekeepers, having a marked queen makes it much easier to actually find her.  Sometimes the beekeeper needs to be able to locate the queen for various hive maintenance tasks.

Of course with experience, everyone gets better at locating her in the hive. However, once you get to the stage where you can “almost always” find your queen bee, having her marked still makes the process much faster. 

This helps you conduct hive inspections quickly and ensure that you spot the queen early on and put her frame in a safe place. She is less likely to be crushed during a hive inspection if you know her location.

When producing your own queen bees, having a marked queen in place makes it much easier to find her and to know that she is the old queen.

image of a marked queen bee leaving a marking tube

Indicator of Queen Replacement

Honey bee swarming is a natural occurrence in healthy colonies.  When inspecting a hive that you know had a marked queen, you may find an unmarked queen. 

What does it mean when you find an unmarked queen in a hive that had a marked queen previously?

  • the colony has swarmed and you are seeing a new queen
  • the paint/marker has rubbed off the old queen
  • the colony is preparing to swarm or replace their queen-you temporarily have 2 in there!

The bottom line is that having marked queens in your beehives will let you know (for the most part) when the queen has changed.  The original queen has been replaced for whatever reason.

This is valuable information for the beekeeper who is working to breed bees with certain characteristics. If you produce  colony with superior varroa mite control it is good to know where the queen in the hive originated.

Queen Bee Colors Reflect Her Age

If you mark her with a special color for the year, you will always know how old she is.  This can be beneficial in honey bee management.  Why? 

Because if you have an older queen in a production colony, you know the chances of her failing are greater than that of a young queen.

You may choose to leave her in place as long as she is doing a good job – but perhaps you may check her quality a bit more often.

International Queen Bee Color Chart

Of course, beekeepers can mark the queen honey bee with any color.  However, using the International Queen Bee Color Chart is easier.

You do not have to rely on your memory to know which color was used for which year.

Use the color pen that corresponds with the last digit of the year. White 1,6 Yellow 2,7 Red 3,8 Green 4,9 Blue 5,0. So, a queen reared in 2020 would be marked with a blue dot, 2021 – a white dot, etc..

queen bee color marking chart

Buying Marked Queen Bees

A beekeeper who buys bees will often be given the choice between receiving an unmarked queen or a marked queen for a few dollars more. This is to compensate for the extra effort and time required of the bee producer.

Almost all purchased queens have already went on their mated flights.   They arrive at the hive ready to lay and build the colony.  These queens will never leave the hive unless the colony swarms.

Most queen breeders do not advise the marking of virgin queens.  These queens have yet to take their mating flights.  There is no reason to have them flying around with a colored dot on their back.

When to Mark a Queen

If you receive an unmarked mated queen, the best time to mark her is within the first month.  You can mark her during installation of the bee package.

Or you may decide to wait a few weeks and let the bees get to know her without a big dot on her back. Once she is accepted and laying eggs-she can be marked while the colony is still small.

When I introduce a new queen into a queenless colony, I like to give the bees a few weeks to accept and get to know her.  This increases the chance that they will be pleased with her and not kill her.

What do You Use to Mark a Queen?

One popular paint used for queen marking is UNI-POSCA Markers.  These are available online and at major beekeeping supply stores.

Another option for some beekeepers is the use of Testor model paint.  This paint takes a bit longer to dry than using the markers. Though not designated as queen paint – older beekeepers have used it for years.

Do these paints have toxic effects on the queen bee?  That does not seem to be a problem. Also, we are only putting a small dot on one part of her back.

How to Mark Your Queen Honey Bee

  • catch and hold the queen with your fingers
  • use a queen marking tube

When developing a strategy to catch and hold your queen, do what feels comfortable for you. Not everyone wants to hold the queen in their hand – this is one important bee!

Holding a Queen Bee With Your Fingers

If you have a steady hand and calm nerves (I do not), you can take the direct approach to catching your queen. Restraining your queen in this manner takes some skill.

Gently grasp her and hold her body between your thumb and 1st finger of your non-dominate hand.  The second finger provides a place for her feet to sit. 

Move your fingers to expose the top of her thorax and paint a small dot there.  After, letting the paint dry for a minute or so – place her gently back on the frame.

If the idea of picking up your queen in this manner makes your blood pressure rise – never fear, there are other options.

picture of a queen honey bee being marked in a tube

Using a Queen Marking Kit with Tube

Using a queen marking tube is the easiest method to safely mark your queens.  The beekeeper does not have to hold the queen but care must still be taken to avoid applying too much pressure.

Find the frame with the queen and gently lay it down with the queen side facing up.

Remove the foam-covered plunger from the tube and “corral the queen into the tube”.  Replace the foam plunger and gently push the queen to the end with a mesh covering.

Continue to gently nudge her until her back (thorax) is against the mesh.  Do not use too much force – be gentle.

Now, mark her with your queen pen marker or paint.  If using a queen pen, do a test blob on a nearby piece of wood first.  Sometimes the first bit of paint is too much.

Do not get paint on her wings, antenna or legs.  We only want a small dot of color on her back.

image of queen with a marked yellow dot on thorax in a tube

Allow the paint to dry for a minute or 2, then remove the plunger and place the open end of the tube down on the top of a frame.  The queen will crawl out and join the colony.

Final Thoughts on Marking Queen Bees

Regardless of the method that you use, unexpected situations can arise.  If the queen were to take flight, stand still.  Do not move for a couple of minutes.  In most cases, she will return to her colony.

While some beekeepers feel that marking queens may cause a colony to reject her, this is not normally the case.

Having marked queen bees provides assistance to the the beekeeper in the vast majority of situations.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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